Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Smoke on the Porter

New Glarus Brewing Company
New Glarus, WI

Style: Porter

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

“Smooooke on the pooorter … and fire in the sky.”

What better way to start a review than with some classic Deep Purple, circa 1972?

Actually, I can think of a number of better ways since that song was released years before I was born. Nigel had to google the chorus just to make sure the mysterious jingle that occasionally pops into my head is in fact a real song (I’ve been known to hallucinate on occasion). I know not what Deep Purple is nor why they choose such a stupid band name, but if that’s the only song of theirs that I know (OK, I only know that one line) then I must say I’m glad they’ve been off the radar for the last, you know … 35 years.

For obvious reasons I had that damn chorus in my head as I was thinking of what to write as an introduction to my latest review, another limited-edition Unplugged offering from New Glarus Brewing Co., Smoke on the Porter. Why the title “Smoke on the Porter”? I’m gonna go ahead and guess that it’s a porter with smoked malt up the ying-yang, and Dan Carey is old enough to remember when that song was actually cool. Although this seems like a plausible explanation, you never know with New Glarus. Their last release was an APA called “Organic Revolution,” which is an interesting title for a beer that is neither an APA nor revolutionary. For all I know this could be a pilsner.

OK, seriously—I need to get off New Glarus’ back over the pitiful Organic. Every brewery has some duds, and as often as the Carey’s experiment in New Glarus, their record of success is extremely impressive. Thus far the Unplugged Series has easily lived up to expectations despite any brew as of yet attaining the lofty five-mug threshold in Nigel’s book. I’m sure it won’t be long before an Unplugged brew takes that last little baby step and joins the Hall of Fame (we don’t actually have a Hall of Fame, so don’t look like a fool by asking your travel agent for a brochure). I should note that there are a couple of Unplugged brews that I have not yet sampled, so it’s possible that there have in fact been five-muggers thus far in the series.

Before I get to the meat of the review, let me give the following disclaimer: Nigel hates smoke of the tobacco variety and despises everything associated with that disgusting habit. I’ve never been a smoker and gag upon the first inhale of cigarette smoke. Unfortunately Nigel’s hometown and home state have yet to pass smoking bans for pubs, so I do what I can to tolerate it. As Eddie alluded to in his “Smoked” article a couple of months back, I believe that the abundance of pungent smoke can ruin a good drinking experience, as it seems to cling to everything in its path, including the glassware that a fine brew is poured into. I don’t really enjoy drinking an IPA with a hint of Newport.

That having been said, I should give another disclaimer: Nigel is a pyromaniac. While cigarette smoke is repulsive to me, wood smoke is a treat. Hickory, cherry, cedar, pine, oh man … I love it. Honestly, I don’t really care what I’m burning as long as there’s fire, but I do prefer a nice, aromatic wood to add to an already exhilarating experience. (Nigel is such a pyro that he even buys candles … that’s right, I’m a dude who buys candles. Deal with it.) I also like smoked meats and cheeses, particularly gouda, ham, salmon, and turkey, so I am able to enjoy the taste of smoke in well-prepared food.

When it comes to smoke in beer, it’s not as clear-cut as my hatred of tobacco smoke and my love of wood smoke. I can enjoy a smoked beer, but it needs to be on an even keel and taste authentic. “Fake” smoke flavor, be it from an unfortunate addition of liquid smoke or using smoked malt in excess, can ruin a good beer. I like a nice, smoky tinge but don’t want to feel like I’m drinking a beer that’s loaded with campfire ash. I enjoy a smoky porter or stout as long as other flavors are present, but I’ve never been a fan of European rauchbiers, which I consider to be too smoky.

My first whiff after cracking open Smoke on the Porter made me raise the red flag. This beer is likely the smokiest brew I’ve ever inhaled, and I’m worried it’s going to overwhelm an otherwise quality beverage. While a dark, high ABV, smoky brew can be perfect on these cold winter evenings, I don’t want to taste my fireplace … I just enjoy warming up in front of it. I mean, you know … if I actually had a fireplace.

Smoke on the Porter (SOTP) pours nicely into my official New Glarus logo pint glass, which I stole fair and square from a pub during my college days. A deep brown to black brew, it pours with a nice, half inch fizzy head that slowly dissipates, leaving a surprisingly lively and picturesque tan trace that clings to the side of the glass throughout the session. As I alluded to already, the aroma is overwhelming amounts of wood smoke. The description on the bottle says that Dan Carey was inspired to make this brew after inhaling smoke house aromas from their New Glarus neighbors, Hoesly’s Meats. New Glarus uses Wisconsin barley that is cold smoked with apple wood by the Hoesly’s. On top of that, Carey uses dark malt smoked in Bamberg (that’s in Germany for the geographically challenged) to create an aromatic experience that would put Smokey the Bear on high alert. The huge apple wood smoke fragrance subsides just enough to detect various hints of chocolate, roasted nuts, and a tinge of coffee. The slightest bit of dark fruit also comes through at times.

The flavor is surprisingly tempered in the smoke department when compared to the overpowering aroma; it’s smoky for sure, but not to the extreme. Nice, smooth flavors of wood smoke initially hit the tongue, but are quickly joined by a plethora of other tastes, most noticeable being dark fruit (tart apple, black cherry, and raisin) and dark chocolate. I detect some roasted nuttiness as well, sort of the beer equivalent of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” I think the key for making a heavily smoked brew that still tastes good to those of us who tend to avoid heavy smoke is this method. Not only is apple wood a mild wood that adds flavors both sweet and smoky, but having a maker of smoked meats handle the barley means that it’s handled with better care and precision than it likely would be in a brewery. While I’m assuming this has an ABV well over 8 percent (I’d guess it’s in the 9-10 percent range) and thus could be considered an “imperial porter,” the mouthfeel is surprisingly smooth and the body is not so thick that it overwhelms. Nigel can’t drink like he used to, but I finished a four-pack over the course of an evening without any ill effects, other than a very strong ashy aftertaste.

I’m giving this a four-mug rating, but you wouldn’t have to do much arguing to convince me to make it a 5 (damn Eddie and his refusal to allow half mugs …). This is a fantastic example of a smoked beer, and a nice, powerful porter to help ease the chill of the winter months. Another well-deserved pat-on-the-back to New Glarus, and we certainly look forward to the next creation in the Unplugged series.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on December 17, 2007.
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