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Beer Reviews

Vanilla Java Porter

Other reviews for this beer:
Baby-Boy Jackson one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer read it ›
Atwater Block Brewery
Detroit, MI

Style: Porter
ABV: 6.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

Nigel’s “Tour O’ Dark Beers” continues today with a mild respite. While Detroit-based Atwater Block Brewing’s Vanilla Java Porter appears to fall squarely into the dark beer genre (it is black as night after all), it’s a bit wussier than the imperial porters, strong bocks, stouts, and barley wines that I’ve been trying to focus on during the tour (this wasn’t a planned tour, but it’s been working well so I’m running with it).

While the “java” part of Vanilla Java Porter intrigues me, the “vanilla” part makes me a bit leery. On the Tour O’ Dark Beers, Nigel craves strong, tasty, balls-to-the-wall malt monsters, not a vanilla McFlurry or Starbucks iced coffee. We shall soon see if this is a false entrant into the lineup, or if Atwater Block has done a sufficient job of making a strong, tasty porter that impresses Nigel and gives credence to the somewhat unknown variable of adding vanilla to beer. As with stouts, the addition of coffee can give a nice touch to a porter, though the brewer must tread carefully; you don’t want to overdo it and make the drinker crave a donut.

One of the main reasons I chose Atwater Block for this review was that I wanted to see just what the heck Baby-boy and Jill keep raving about. The previous reviews for Atwater Block were from these two fine Senior Beer Review Correspondents, but they were so complimentary that I’m beginning to wonder if they work in public relations for the brewery (this theory was enhanced with the shocking placement of Atwater Block atop their Midwest Power Rankings recentl … Atwater Block garnered a grand total of zero mentions from all other voters). Atwater Block has limited distribution outside of Michigan, but I tracked some down recently, hoping that I could jump on the bandwagon and learn more about this Motown brewer.

Jump I shall not. I’m not here to criticize, as Baby-boy is a pleasant fellow, quite intelligent and personable for sure, but he does have the noticeable smell of Detroit on him. I’m not crying bias here, but … I don’t know how to finish that sentence. I picked up both a sixer of VJP and a four-pack of Voodoo Vator, sampling the VV first (Baby-boy already reviewed it, so I’ll pass on that). It’s a decent doppelbock, but I definitely wouldn’t rate it five mugs (I might give it the benefit of the doubt and go with four, but I’d lean towards three). As for the Vanilla Java Porter, well … hello, average! Granted, there are plenty of other Atwater Block brews (I refuse to abbreviate them as “AB” for obvious reasons) out there to sample, but thus far I am not terribly impressed.

Vanilla Java Porter pours deep black with a slight fizzy head that evaporates instantly, leaving a slight beige trace at the very edge of the glass; if you’re searching for a beer that most resembles a dark cola, this may be as close as you’ll ever get. Initial aromas are dominated by beans, both coffee and cocoa. A large amount of coffee is balanced with secondary aromas of chocolate malt (sort of a powdery cocoa) and imitation vanilla, making it pleasant but a bit artificial. There is a slight tinge of smokiness and a hint of alcohol in the background, but those aromas can be hard to detect for the most part. Ultimately the aroma falls into the dreaded “smells like Starbucks” category.

The taste does little to redeem VJP, though it is unique enough to maintain a three-mug rating. To Atwater Block’s credit, they were accurate in their advertising: this has a noticeable flavor of coffee and vanilla. Unfortunately the coffee dominates the flavor more than it should and the vanilla is the chemically, imitation type, so it has a stale flavor to it. The coffee flavor is a bit non-descript; instead of tasting like a bistro vanilla coffee bean, it tastes like generic ground coffee doused in imitation vanilla. A bland cocoa powder flavor joins in eventually, as does a hint of breadiness. The coffee/vanilla/chocolate combo could make for a flavor orgy, but instead it’s only mildly appealing and grows tiresome quickly; like the aroma, a potentially pleasant flavor ends up being far too artificial. Roasted, smoked malt joins in as the beer warms, which is the closest this ever comes to tasting like a true porter. Atwater Block added some Goldings hops to the equation, though they are virtually undetectable as you would expect given the style. All in all, this has some complexity in flavor, but those flavors are far too bland to make it anything other than average. A strong coffee/smoky aftertaste dominates, making this a drink you’ll be tasting hours after the last one goes down. VJP is a tad more carbonated than you’d expect given the style, but overall has a smooth mouthfeel and a mild 6 percent ABV, so it could be considered a session brew if you’re so inclined.

While Vanilla Java Porter clearly qualifies as a dark beer, it’s not what I’m looking for on my Tour O’ Dark Beers and it’s not something I plan on indulging in again. It’s not awful by any means, but there are plenty of other flavorful porters and stouts out there that are better crafted than this. Atwater Block gets points for creativity, as this was a good idea that just wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. Atwater Block brews are a bit pricey, so if you’re looking for a fine porter that won’t hit you in the wallet too hard, you may want to look elsewhere. I won’t give up on this brewery just yet, as two brews does not a brewery make, but I’m beginning to wonder if my colleagues were a bit overzealous with their praise.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on April 3, 2008.
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