The Great Knoxville Porter-Off

I’ve lived in Knoxville for seven years now, and this Fall might have been the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  The colors came earlier and stayed longer than almost any other year I can remember.  It’s late-November now, though, and we just lost the last browns and reds in the trees, and the sun seems to be completely down before we get home from work.  So what’s the good news about these dark days of murky browns and reds?  It’s still very much Porter season.

More than any other side of the beer spectrum, the dark side of the pint is filled with myths and generalizations, most of which revolve around Porters and Stouts.  It could be argued that Porters tend to fall on the sweeter side, balancing chocolate and coffee flavors with caramel malts, whereas Stouts lean towards the harsher, more roasted flavors balanced by a hefty body.  This is painting with a wide brush, though, and as a whole, the differences between Stouts and Porters belong more to the history books and obscure lore than our modern palette.  All I know for sure is that I like to watch the Fall leaves float with a Porter in my hand, and I like to wash down the Winter snow with a Stout.

And so it was in honor of the season and our town that the Knox Beer Snobs convened at The Casual Pint in Bearden for the first ever (annual/weekly/daily?) Knoxville Porter tasting.  The rules were simple.  It had to be a Porter, and it had to be local.  Simple indeed, because that left us with precisely three beers — Tuckaleechee Porter by Smoky Mountain Brewery, Old World Porter by Woodruff Brewing, and the seasonal offering from Saw Works Brewing Co., their Double Chocolate Porter.  Three Porters and three dudes — coincidence?  Who cares, it was time to drink!

A small caveat here, our conclusions weren’t based on any scientific data, and we completely threw out the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines.  Sure, we sniffed, swirled, pondered, opined, and postulated as we tasted, but our scorecards were relative.  This was purely what we liked, and for the hell of it.  Spoiler alert, we all preferred different beers, and no, we didn’t do that on purpose.

But enough with the ramblings, let’s get to it.

Up first was the Tuckaleechee Porter from Smoky Mountain Brewery.  This poured a very cloudy brown, not surprising since we literally got the end of the last keg they had on hand.  It’s also not surprising that this is a hard beer to keep on tap, just ask Don, who preferred this Porter over the other two.  Of the three beers, this one had the most prominent chocolate aroma backed up by just the right level of roast coffee and grain sweetness.  Rich without being cloying, this is a cool weather beer to be enjoyed between dinner and dessert.  But don’t let me dictate your drinking schedule, it could also really compliment a nice rack of sweet Memphis ribs or a citrus-based cake.

Second on our list was Old World Porter, which won Rob’s heart and vote.  Of all the Porters we tried, this one flirted most with the roasted flavors of a Stout.  The graininess was balanced with a touch of nutty aroma and slight char.   This is a near-classic example of a traditional Robust Porter, the beer that fueled the Industrial Revolution in England.  This pint, we agreed, needed a steak.  Perhaps a medium rare Porterhouse?  This was also the prettiest beer of the three, with a ruby halo topping the deep brown body — see we have an aesthetic side, too.

Last up, and my favorite of the night, was the Double Chocolate Porter from Saw Works Brewing.  The darkest of the three beers, this brew was loaded with chocolate malt and doused with cocoa nibs in the fermenter.  Despite this, though, the chocolate aroma was still decidedly less than the Tuckaleechee Porter.  What I appreciated about this beer was the subtlety.  I’m a big fan of deep dark chocolate, and always keep a bag of 86% on hand, so this was perfect for me.  When it comes to Double Chocolate beers, most people think of Youngs or Rogue — liquid Tootsie Rolls.  Both great beers, but each a little too over the top to be a session beer.  The Saw Works Double Chocolate, though, walked a fine enough line to be enjoyed in multiples.  Of the three beers we tried, this one went best with my wife’s chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies, but it would be just as much at home with some pork enchiladas covered in Mole sauce.

Now we could have stopped there, having tried three amazing Porters, all from within 10 miles of our current location, but that wouldn’t be very journalistic of us, would it?  We needed a control.  Thankfully, due to the prowess of the cold-beer selection at The Casual Pint, we had no shortage of options.

We went with St. Charles Porter from Blackstone in Nashville.  I spent a few years in Nashville, and still visit family there regularly, so I know this beer well.  If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in their brewpub on West End when St. Charles on cask, consider yourself blessed.  We, however, were limited to a 12 ounce bottle.  St. Charles pours a deep brown with rust-colored highlights, and the nose is malt and coffee.  Let this one warm and breath for a minute, and you’ll find it’s slightly earthy notes come through.  This is another all-around great porter that would compliment the sweet and savory sides of your palette and plate.  Maybe it was our hometown pride, or maybe it was the bottle vs. keg thing, but none of us changed our votes.  We had our favorites, and they were all local.

So now here comes the important question.  What’s your favorite Porter?  Have you sat down with a few friends to find out?  In the end it’s all subjective, but at least you can rest assured that you have three very good local options with Smoky Mountain Brewery, and Woodruff Brewing and Saw Works Brewing Co.  And if you want more variety, The Casual Pint has several more local and regional porters on tap and in the bottle.

Unfortunately, at the time of this print, the Double Chocolate from Saw Works has been tapped out for good.  But keep your eyes, ears and noses on high alert, because they have a stout coming up soon.  Hmmmm….anyone wanna meet at the Casual Pint for a Stout Tasting?