Porter is a beer style that makes even the most knowledgeable beer experts a little nervous. Many a beer blogger has had to fumble together a paragraph that kind-of-but-not-entirely explains how, if at all, porter is different from stout. I’m not going to do so here. We’ve all got lives to live. I’ve tried before, but others have done it better. That’s what makes Baltic Porter so special. It has discernable characteristics that set it apart. What started out as an export-strength porter for sale in the Baltic states in the 18th century, became so well-loved it was adopted by them. By the mid-19th century, it was being made with cold-fermenting ale yeast or lager yeast, transforming it into something quite different.
Fast forward to May 17th 2013. Odell brewmaster and all-round lovely gent Doug Odell is brewing a collaborative beer with Camden Town Brewery. The audacious aim is a violent, schizophrenic fusion of Odell’s seminal Cutthroat Porter and Camden Town’s award winning Hells Lager. The result: Camden Versus Odell, a Baltic porter at 7% abv. I remember being baffled by the facing off of lager and porter, but after thinking about what a Baltic porter really is, it actually makes perfect sense. Cutthroat is full-bodied but incredibly balanced beer that glides silkily across the palate, and is even-handed in its dispensing of cocoa and coffee. Hells, meanwhile, is the clean, classy everyman of the booming London beer scene. Easy to like and hard to hate, it just shines with quality, depth, bite and refreshment. All things considered, it’s a grand heritage.
On June 27th, Camden Versus Odell was launched at Camden Town Brewery where it was brewed. Head brewer Alex Troncoso was present to talk about the beer (most of which came across as a rather adorable enthusiasm for being able to brew with Doug Odell). My anticipation for this beer had grown since that day back in May when the brewery was filled with the smell of what should be a cracking beer. Assembling such a Frankenstein’s monster should be easy, right? Cutthroat’s body and flavour with Hells’ clarity, balance and quaffability. What could go wrong?
Normally such a paragraph break would suggest that ‘well, actually, a whole goddamn lot can go wrong’. Thankfully, this is not the case. Camden Versus Odell is an accomplished, technically impressive and delicious Baltic porter. It wears its 7% abv strength not like a burden, but rather like an ostentatious crown befitting a Czar. The difference that a lager yeast and long (six week) maturation can have on a porter is quite remarkable. It arrives on your tongue in a forthright and unashamedly loud fashion. Quick, cold, carbonated bursts of coffee and cocoa that at first seem sharp and overly bitter melt into something soft and silky, ending with a crisp, roasty bite. The consensus of other drinkers I spoke to was that it was a sublimely balanced beer, and never tiring in its flavour or strength.
As the beer warms in the glass, there’s more to enjoy. Toffee sauce and chocolate chunks (like a tub of half-melted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) pile up on the tongue, but just as the mouthfeel becomes thick, the crisp, dry finish cuts everything down, leaving you gasping for every sip. A 7% abv beer needs to be special in order to be this drinkable, and Camden Versus Odell is just such a beer. Fans of strong porter and black lager should seek it out while it’s still available, and if this beer is anything to go by, future releases from Camden’s ‘Versus Range’ will be unmissable.
Disclaimer: I was invited to the launch of this beer at Camden Town Brewery, where half-pint measures of the beer were free from 7pm until 8pm. Needless to say, I had a few. My growler fill was paid for.