Miro Bellini’s Black Beer Tasting at Carwyn Cellars
I’ve always loved beer, at least as long as I’ve been legally allowed to. But love doesn’t happen all at once; it comes in increments. Little by little love grows the more you learn and understand.
Back in Ottawa in the summer of 2007 it was all intrigue. I knew there was something that drew me to beer but I didn’t know what it was. I was consistently unsatisfied with the beers that I was drinking but I could tell, on some level, that there was something to discover underneath that ice cold, piss-coloured exterior.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that I took beer for granted even as recently as a year ago. I’d been living in Montreal for four years and homebrewing for three, but it wasn’t until my trip to Belgium last September that we really took the relationship to the next level, and not until doing my “now-or-never” rounds in July, before skipping town, that I finally tasted what is my favourite of all beers I’ve tasted from Quebec (very, very many), Les Trois Mousquetaires Baltic Porter.
So Saturday’s Black Beer Tasting at Carwyn Cellars was a fine way to ease my transition from Montreal to Melbourne. The event, hosted by Miro Bellini, had been advertised to include beers from five different breweries, three of which are in or near Montreal, one of which was Les Trois Mousquetaires.
Five tastings for $25 seemed like a pretty good deal, especially considering Australia’s prohibitively high beer prices, but when I arrived with two other ex-Montrealers, it was to happily discover that I’d skipped over the word “including” when I read the event description. Standing in a row were 9 beers from 7 breweries, 4 of them from 3 different breweries in the Montreal area.
- Brooklyn (USA) Dry Irish Stout
- Yoho (Japan) Tokyo Black Porter
- St Ambroise (Canada) Oatmeal Stout
- Hitachino Nest (China) Sweet Stout
- Dieu du Ciel (Canada) Aphrodisiaque
- Brooklyn (USA) Black Chocolate Stout
- Dieu du Ciel (Canada) Peche Mortel
- Les Trois Mousquetaires (Canada) Porter Baltique
- North Coast (USA) Old Rasputin Imperial Stout
Miro Bellini introduced himself as a man with no credentials, aside from nine years of work in the beer industry and the co-founding of Good Beer Week, one of the largest events of its kind. “This is going to be easy,” he said, “We’re going to talk about what you smell and what you taste. We don’t care what the beer looks like, because all these beers look the same.”
The theme of the event was black beers, but not so much as an exploration of a style, as Miro was quick to point out; “When somebody tells me they don’t like dark beers, I know that it means they tried one or two dark beers and didn’t enjoy them.” Loosely speaking, black beers refers to stouts and porters, two ‘styles’ so vague that one person’s definition of a porter is another’s definition of a stout.
This would be a strange tasting for those uninitiated into craft beer. Growing up in a small, two-bar town in Ontario, the only beer I could get aside from Molson Canadian (or the same beer by a different name) was Guinness. I was drinking a pint as black as ink in a room full of pitchers as pale as piss. Sure enough, it set me apart and earned me a fair share of (mostly good-natured) berating.
Now here I was in a room full of people celebrating the diversity in black beers alone. “In beer judging,” Miro explains, “We award 15 points for taste, 13 points for smell, but only 3 points for how the beer looks. The colour of the beer tells you nothing about how strong it is, nothing about how thick it is, and nothing about how bitter or sweet it is.”
The first two beers laid the foundation. Brooklyn Dry Irish Stout is in the same style as Guinness, the lightest of the black beers. Made with only a relative sprinkling of black barley, enough to stain the beer and give it that distinctive roasted flavour that often denotes a stout, this style was designed to be quaffable enough to drink in pints all night, as you often do.
The other half of the foundation was Tokyo Black Porter from Yoho in Japan. “To me, this is the dictionary definition of porter.” Miro’s “to me” is important, because stout and porter are so muddled and the jury’s still out on what distinguishes them from each other. The term stout came about originally as a specific type of porter: a stout porter, meaning a ‘thick and strong’ porter, further confusing the issue (more info). But this porter is excellent, sweeter and creamier than dry Irish stouts without seeming heavy or filling.
Miro introduced the next beer by first explaining that he doesn’t lend too much weight to online beer ratings, since they disproportionately favour strong beers and rare beers. That being said, the first of four beers from Quebec and one of my go-to beers of the last four years, St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout, is consistently rated 100 at RateBeer.com. For the third in a tasting of nine beers of increasing heaviness, it’s amazing that this beer used to seem so heavy to me, and probably still does to many drinkers.
“It’s a shame the label looks like it was put together by a first-year with clip-art,” said Miro, prompting the three of us to out ourselves as Montrealers and come to the brewery’s defence. How much of that came from the fact that I’ve drank more beer from St. Ambroise than any other brewery is hard for me to tell.
The next two beers were the least memorable. Miro had stories to tell about Hitachino Nest but their sweet stout didn’t leave an impression on me, while Aphrodisiaque, the second beer from Montreal and the first of two from Dieu du Ciel, has never been a favourite of mine. It’s brewed with vanilla and cocoa, and those are more or less its only two notes. On the bright side, placing Aphrodisiaque before Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout really elevated the latter.
“Brooklyn Brewery prides itself on making beers that are perfect examples of their styles. They don’t make extreme beer, and because of that most of their beers appear as commercial examples in the official styles guide. This beer is the one exception. In fact, this was the brewmaster’s resume when he applied for the job in 1994.” This beer wrings so much more out of ‘chocolate stout’ than the previous, without even using any chocolate in the recipe.
We’re now six beers in to the event, the last of which was 10%, and they have been generous with their servings, meaning that I’ve been drinking the last third of most of Samantha’s beers as well. This is the point in the afternoon when everyone is restless and talkative enough to have a mingle.
The tasting is being held in the back room of Carwyn Cellars, a relatively new bottleshop in Thornbury. This half of the shop must have been storage under the previous owner, but Ben Carwyn, a former viticulturist, apparently said fuck it and made it part of the store. I haven’t met too many people in Melbourne yet so it was nice to be able to let my beer geek side out without worrying about alienating people.
I have had all of the final three beers of the tasting, and quite recently, but I was eager to have them again. Our second beer from Dieu du Ciel was the Péché Mortel, an imperial coffee stout, the only beer of the day in Ratebeer’s top 50. I remember the first time I had this, at the Dieu du Ciel bar on Laurier in Montreal. I shared a single glass with a friend because, as I put it at the time, it was like drinking a chocolate cake.
With practice I came to love that beer and, shortly before leaving Montreal, I went back to that bar to have what I thought would be my final glass for a while. But it doesn’t hold the place of honour in my eyes as the best black beer in Quebec – that goes to our next sample, Les Trois Mousquetaires Porter Baltique.
This was the highlight of the event for most attendees. We heard a lot of things over the first 7 beers when Miro would ask us what we smell or what we taste. Licorice, celery, overcooked Anzac, ash tray, sulphur, Adelaide tap water. But the first response he got when he asked about this beer was “Delicious.” It has many of the usual suspects for a porter at 10% – chocolate, coffee, cherries, some light smokiness – but it has balance and maturity in spades, with a rich fruitiness and complexity more expected in a port than a porter.
Earlier in the afternoon, when Miro explained that he wanted to highlight the variety in black beers, he was preaching to the choir. I don’t think any of us would be here if we thought we didn’t like dark beers. But with this beer he was also highlighting the variety in another often-generalised category: lagers.
Unlike India Pale Ales and Russian Imperial Stouts, both English styles, the Baltic Porter style is accurately named. They were originally brewed, you guessed it, in the Baltics, where it’s quite cold enough for lager yeasts to dominate the landscape. Baltic Porters are generally fermented with lager yeast, which is as far as I know the only thing that necessarily differentiates the style from a Russian Imperial Stout.
We closed the tasting with an American favourite, Old Rasputin Imperial Stout from North Coast. I had this at Mikkeller Bar SF on my way to Australia and loved it, but tasting it side by side with the LTS Porter Baltique was a bit of a letdown. More assertive, particularly in the roastiness, and more alcohol burn (despite being lower in alcohol). Still quite good, and I took a bottle of this one home.
All in all a delicious, entertaining and very generous tasting. I spoke to Miro briefly afterward and thanked him, but in case he’s reading this I want to point out that I do have one small complaint: for a tasting highlighting the diversity possible in black beers, why no black IPA?