It was an unseasonably cold night in New Orleans and I wanted to try something new. I don’t know why the bottle caught my eye, but the dark liquid inside seemed to be a perfect companion on this frigid French Quarter Friday night. The cashier at the Martin Wine Seller checked me out without asking for my ID, and there I was – 18 years old with my first ever bottle of Samuel Smith’s Famous Taddy Porter. It certainly wouldn’t be my last, and it made for a memorable evening. I have continued to enjoy that beer through all the changes that both my palate and America’s beer scene have gone through in the last 15+ years, and, looking back, it has been one of very few mainstays in my repertoire of refreshments.
So, when the Winking Lizard announced that the seventh generation namesake of Samuel Smith would be leading a tasting dinner with several of the brewery’s legendary offerings paired with delicious courses of English-inspired food, I quickly reserved a spot for me and my wife. Anyone who has attended a Winking Lizard beer event knows they are always a great time, and this October evening was no exception. Also on hand were two key members of the distributors who introduced America to Samuel Smith in the early 1980′s: from Merchant du Vin, President Rich Hamilton and Great Lakes region representative John Staunton. The format for the evening consisted of five beers, a four course meal, and a three part presentation complete with projected photos and some Q&A.
Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout
Things got started right when we arrived. We were greeted by the friendly Winking Lizard staff and handed a glass of Samuel Smith’s legendary Imperial Stout. This first ‘welcome’ course paired well with three types of cheese and some delicious banger sausage. In particular, the Stilton Blue and English Cheddar provided an intense and flavorful compliment to the rich beer.
And the Imperial Stout started things off in fine form. Black with little head, it looks great and has some excellent lace. The head re-awakens with a small swirl, and its milk chocolate color is nice. The beer smells of chocolate, coffee, molasses, mild roasted malt, and some hops. Everything is well-rounded and balanced. It’s pretty expressive as well, especially for an authentic RIS and not some American version with tons of ingredients and additives.
The taste is nice – loads of roasted malt and molasses sweetness leave me with the impression that this is on the mark. Some dark fruit is present, mostly raisin and fig. Mild hops and some coffee combine to produce a slight lingering bitterness and some slight metallic tastes. Still well above average and enjoyable. The mouthfeel is thinner than the pinnacle of the style, but the light carbonation makes it feel creamy. There’s some lingering roast and slight bitterness in the finish. Imperial Stout was a fine beer to begin the evening.
Does Bobby Like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout?
As we finished our cheese, Samuel entered the building and met with Winking Lizard Vice President of Operations, John Lane and the guys from Merchant du Vin. They went over the format for the evening, and it was apparent young Samuel was a little nervous. You see, he’s only 21 years old and is still at University at Oxford. He’s set to graduate in two years and start working his way up towards taking over the brewery some day in the future. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to get up and speak about the family business to a room of more than 100 people half way around the world. But, with a brief pep talk and a half a glass of Imperial Stout, the young chap was ready to go. The projector fired up, the lights dimmed, and a photo of the facade of the legendary brewery served as the backdrop to the beginning of the discussion.
Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter
Just as the presentation started, the Lizard staff started serving the second course – luxurious lobster bisque paired with none other than Taddy Porter. Samuel introduced the beer and went over some of the brewing process used to create all the products the brewery produces. One thing is for sure – Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery still carries on the traditional methods of beer craftsmanship that have been practiced in England for hundreds of years. In particular, the photos showed the well where water has been fed into the brewery for hundreds of years. Anyone with brewing knowledge will tell you that the well water an artisanal brewery uses has a unique mix of minerals and salts that makes it unique to the area, and the water in Tadcaster helps make Samuel Smith beers so good. Another interesting process Samuel described was the old-school way the brewery goes about primary fermentation, which all occurs in traditional Yorkshire squares. These large, open vessels allow the yeast to be agitated and the beer to receive more carbon dioxide, which results in a “fuller” feel. Some more photos showed the old kettles and vessels where the beer is stored, and the brewery is both beautiful and full of historic charm. Finally, some snapshots showed the system of pulleys and belts that is used to transport heavy ingredients through the grain mill.
Just as we took a short break from the presentation, I got my bisque and happily began to sip on my Taddy Porter. Out of the bottle, the beer poured a black color with brown hints and some nice, milky head. Nice lacing as well, and, when I hold this to the light, I notice some slight red highlights. A nice looking English Porter. The aroma is great, but is just a touch muted when put up against the best of the style. Still, many great notes of roasted malt are present giving caramel, chocolate, and dark fruit hints. A touch of hops make an appearance as well, thrown in for good measure.
Taddy Porter has mild chocolate and slight coffee in the taste from the roasted malt, but the star of the taste is some smooth caramelized malt. Medium bitterness follows, and the beer gives some impressions of sweet toffee and maybe a touch of cream. The finish is a touch short and sweet, along with some mild lingering roast. Besides the fleeting flavors, the beer is perfect in terms of mouthfeel. Creamy with spot-on mild carbonation, the medium body feels great and keeps me wanting more. This was a great pairing with lobster bisque and it was the favorite beer of the night for many in attendance. For me, it brought me back to my first run-in with Samuel Smith beers, if for just a second.
Does Bobby Like Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter?
Before the main course was served, another segment of the presentation began. This part focused more on what happens to the beer after it’s fermented but before it reaches the pubs in England. One really notable fact that was shared was that Samuel Smith’s is the only brewery in the world that employs a full-time cooper to build and repair casks that house the beer when served in the traditional English style. Although those casks never make it to the US, the cooper keeps the vessels in top-form and Samuel himself will have to learn more about the cooper’s daily activities in the next few years. One fascinating and funny tradition is that of cooper graduation. When an apprentice is ready to become a lead cooper, the young chap climbs into the barrel. It’s filled with beer and sealed, then the barrel is rolled all around the brewery with the copper inside. I wonder if there’s ever been a time where, after the trip around, they opened the barrel to find no beer left and a very drunk young cooper!
Samuel Smith’s Pale Ale
It was almost time for diner and the Winking Lizard staff was busy putting plates together for the more than 100 guests. Before the course was served, Samuel talked just a few minutes more about how another tradition the brewery has been continuing since its founding. When Tadcaster pubs order their casks of any of Samuel Smith’s beers, they can be assured the freshest possible beer because of their location. But they can also count on the beer being delivered in style. Specifically, the brewery still uses Shire Horses and makes the rounds through town once a week with a wagon full of barrels. The horses aren’t just for show like those American brewery ads at the Super Bowl; instead, the use of Shire Horses just illustrates another way the brewery is committed to keeping the practices of the past alive. The dapple-grey horses are the last active beer delivery team in the world. Wouldn’t it be great if some urban American brewers started this environmentally-friendly tradition in big cities around the country?
I know that’s not a realistic in modern-day America. But, I didn’t stop daydreaming when I got my dinner. The roast beef and horseradish mashed potatoes were hearty and fantastic, as was the Yorkshire pudding. They served as a nice sensory stimulus as I imagined sipping my Pale Ale in a Tadcaster row house on York road, watching the sun set at supper as I soaked in the experience and made my observations. The beer is copper with some amber and orange highlights. It’s not cloudy; instead, it’s quite clear and has just a small film of head. This adds up to a beer with great color but poor head retention. The smell is enjoyable but just not what I like in the style. I prefer just a touch more expression from the hops. I know English Pale Ales should be more malty than their American counterparts and lack the citrus and pine aromas of Pacific Northwest hops, but this had very little from the Kent-Golding hops Samuel said they use. Some bready malt, caramel, and minor wet cardboard (I can only assume was mild oxidation) were all present and noted.
The mild malt in the taste sets the stage for what could be an epic beer. But there’s little to balance it, just some earthy hops and medium bitterness. Just not as flavorful as I like, and there’s no intense contrast of sweet and bitter flavors. The mouthfeel is decent, with a crisp medium bodied beer having nice carbonation and a lingering mildly bitter finish. The pale ale, unfortunately, was my least favorite of the evening. But it paired well with the meal. I just wish it was a bit more flavor-forward and expressive.
Does Bobby Like Samuel Smith’s Pale Ale?
Following a filling dinner, it was time to learn about the relatively new partnership Samuel Smith Brewery has entered with the Melbourn Brothers Brewery in nearby Stamford. In 1994, Samuel Smith began restoring the century-old brewery to create a new line of beers that would use fruit as seasoning. In 2009, the first of these beers were exported to the US and they proudly proclaim their USDA Organic stature on their label. The whole line of Samuel Smith’s Organic Fruit Beers are brewed and fermented at Melbourn Bros. Brewery in Stamford; then blended, conditioned and packaged at Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery in Tadcaster. We saw some photos of the Melbourn brewery and got some rare insight into the culture of the city; Stamford is full of history and, to some extent, the city is frozen in time with its deep traditions and ancient Saxon, Danish, and Norman buildings.
Samuel Smith’s Organic Cherry Ale
The desert course began to come out of the kitchen as the gentlemen from Merchant du Vin illuminated us with tales of the creation and distribution of the fine products. One interesting tidbit was the fact that the main pub in town not only serves beer but also sells pies. They have a chalkboard that keeps count of the number of each served, and I wondered how the two would go together. My dessert arrived and I was instantly excited to eat the cherry trifle with buttery poundcake, whipped cream, and cherry syrup served in a martini glass. Before some question and answers, John Staunton showed some slides and a few caught my eye. They were plaques around the brewery commemorating the lives of employees that were lost in miscellaneous mishaps around the brewery. I guess this was one workplace where you don’t want to get your name on the wall. The tales were a touch morbid, but were interesting nonetheless, and it was fascinating to hear the way the brewery remembered the victims of these unfortunate incidents.
But there was nothing unfortunate about the Organic Cherry Beer. It looks great in the glass with a pink, red, and orange color. There’s no mistaking that this is a fruit beer. A small head of foam is active but quickly retreats. Some beautiful lace is left behind. I can’t wait to see how it smells, so I stick my nose right into the glass. The beer has a wonderful cherry smell – sweet and slightly tart, with only minor comparisons to cough drops. A touch of cherry cola is noted as well. A slight metallic touch is also present but is easily overlooked.
The taste of this beer is really nice. It’s got some good natural cherry flavor and is sweet without becoming anywhere near cloying. The flavor is really nicely balanced and it only makes me remember Ludens for a moment. And that’s saying a lot, as many cherry products bug me because of that comparison. The mouthfeel is sparkling but creamy at the same time. I thought that was impressive. It finishes with slight syrupy/stickiness but sweetness rules the day and that’s fine with me. The pairing was bold, and, unfortunately, I feel it was the one miss of the night. When sampled alongside a cherry trifle, the beer took a back seat to the fruit and couldn’t hold up to the real thing. But it was remarkably similar in its flavor profile, but the side-by-side comparison tends to accentuate the differences. I would have liked to see it paired with some dark chocolate instead.
Does Bobby Like Samuel Smith’s Organic Cherry Ale?
Samuel Smith’s Organic Lager
To end the evening, Organic Lager was poured and I got the chance to chat with Samuel about his trip and his impression of the American beer scene. As we enjoyed the clean, refreshing and surprisingly flavorful lager, we discussed the changes the “extreme” brewing movement has brought to America and to England (where Brewdog has created beers composed of up to 60% alcohol). Samuel said that he feels any new brewing innovations that are in the spirit of progressing flavor and quality have their place, but that tradition will always have its place. While he admitted that he enjoyed a huge hoppy IPA the night before in Seattle, he quickly added that, as an Englishman, he preferred session-able beers with much lower alcohol content. He also mentioned that the beer scene in Cleveland was easily one of the best in the United States! I wholeheartedly agree!
As for the lager itself, it is simple, straightforward, and good all-around. The beer is gold in color with a clear (not cloudy) look and a nice white head. Good lace is left behind, and the beer is off to a great start before I even smell or taste it. Slight noble hops contribute a touch of lemon and some floral notes to the nose. There’s a touch of grass, pale malt, and some clean lager yeast as well, completing a pretty well-rounded aroma for a lager. I’ve had a few European Pale Lagers with more expression, but this is pleasant and really nice all-around.
The beer’s taste is enjoyable and clean, and, as a bonus, it is not grainy at all. A crisp noble hop kick comes off as grassy with a hint of lemon. The sweetness is moderate and light (the beer as a whole is not very bitter at all). Organic Lager is well rounded and fun to drink – when’s the last time you said that about a beer? Flowers, a touch of caramel, and some biscuits for good measure make the taste one to remember. The mouthfeel is medium to light-bodied and creamy with a touch of a crisp edge. As for drinkability, forget having to choke this away – the beer goes down way too easy. This is a wonderful session lager and was a nice way to end our tasting.
Does Bobby Like Samuel Smith’s Organic Lager?
Cheerio, Good Chap !
Samuel Smith beers have been a part of my life since before I was technically allowed to drink them. From a chilly college evening spent cozy on the couch with that first bottle of Taddy Porter to this wonderful authentic English meal with the heir apparent to the Samuel Smith throne, the world class offerings from the Tadcaster brewery continue to fill glasses all across the world with beautiful British beer. In particular, the role Samuel Smith has played in introducing America to traditional English beer is undeniable. The way their products keep that tradition alive today is a testament to the perseverance of their passion and the endurance of their influence. Perhaps John Lane said it best when he simply stated that, in the past 25 years since the Winking Lizard World Tour started, Samuel Smith has been the only brewery represented every year. Thanks to the Winking Lizard, Merchant du Vin and, of course, young Samuel for a night to remember. Hopefully I can sip another Organic Lager with him again sometime, preferably on his home turf in North Yorkshire at the old brewery!
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