The Cathedral Close in Exeter must be one of the finest in the country. The Cathedral Church of St Peter, an architectural beacon for miles around with it’s twin towers straddling an enormous vaulted nave, look down genteely on a full enceinte of hotch potch buildings constructed in all styles and through all the ages. Today the shops are mostly cafes and restaurants, a bookshop and some gift shops, yet through all the change one pub still thrives. The Well House must enjoy one of the most spectacular views from its doors of almost any British pub. And it was an old haunt of mine, taking our pints outside in summer, perching on the low wall in front of the cathedral lawns and wiling away a pleasant hour or three.
I associate The Well House with porter – a beer style that is increasingly in vogue these days but back then was a rarity. It was most definitely unusual to find it on draught in a pub at the time – and in fact still not so common today I suppose. Alas, the beer was a struggle – I can’t remember the brewery or the brand, but it was an earthy, acrid, scratching beer – it fought you, it bit, it spat – making you work for the rite of passage – one I chose not to take. Almost unbelievably therefore, I have either avoided porter since, or more accurately, allowed myself to be tempted by other types of beer when the choice arose. Daft really, but it shows the power of a single experience – just one ‘bad’ pint and the whole family of porters is tarnished, wiped off the map for two decades. Tch.
Porter is one of those fascinating beers that would be of interest for general historians not just beer enthusiasts. One of the first ‘mass produced’ beer styles, it caught on during the industrial revolution allowing its brewers to scale up as urban population exploded: steam powered breweries; wooden-staved conditioning tanks so large that brewery Directors entertained the great and good within them. All today’s porters guess at what we believe they might have tasted like. It’s believed for example that given that the beer was matured in wood, that the original porters of the 19th century would have undergone some secondary fermentation – from the yeast contained in the casks. It’s believed too that the malt bill would have contained a pretty high proportion of almost burnt grains from the direct firing methods employed at the time. So perhaps my experience in The Well House was accurate. We can only imagine the flavours that would have arisen – winey, vinous, with a cider-like cut of sharpness at their best, vinegary at their worst.
Shepherd Neame brew what for me drinks like a classic porter. They actually brew it for Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range. It’s ink black – blacker than many stouts (and particularly, much blacker than Draught Guinness which nowadays is almost reddy-brown), definitely as black as squid ink and blacker than the heart, soul and naughty thoughts of the Lord Of The Underworld. This beer is Seven Hells black and pours with a rocky, caramel toffee head which lingers beautifully and laces frillier than Agent Provocateur frilly knickers. The smell: it’s Bonfire Night come round again, with cinder toffee and a whiff of Guy-Fawkes-is-Burning pure smoke or perhaps just gently smouldering pallets – all following through into the taste, with an extra sharp edge of charcoal. Not then a pint-after-pint supping beer; but definitely one for sitting down in the Dickensian bay window seat of a local hostelry on a cold December night, looking out over the Cathedral before crunching home through the winter snow.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013