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Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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Beer Here: Bully Porter from Gray Brewing Company
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Credit:Robin Shepard

The porter beer style emerged from the working class, specifically the "porters" who worked the shipyards and landings of England. It's a beer with a 300-plus-year history, and is considered the earliest industrialized and mass-produced beer style. It was the cheap beer of its day.

Those early porters have been generally described as "brown" beer, probably more of an amber ale by today's standards. In the early 1800s, different methods for roasting barley produced darker and blacker malts, and the color of the Porter deepened as well. Eventually, Arthur Guinness took the dark beer to another level with his famous stout. In the 1900s the Porter nearly died in the U.S., but was saved by the microbrewery renaissance, which made it a dark "craft beer."

Today, porters fall into two camps: a very dark, robust Porter and a milder brown Porter. The darker versions are sometimes so close to a stout in flavor and color they can be hard to tell apart. The brown porter is subtler in flavor, smoother and better balanced. Gray Brewing, one of Wisconsin's oldest beer and beverage makers, produces both. Gray makes a robust example for winter, and a brown ale called Bully Porter, which was just introduced by the Janesville brewery in April.


What is it? Bully Porter from Gray Brewing Company of Janesville.

Style: The brown porter, as the style name implies, is a middle to dark brown beer with low to medium malty sweetness. Some hoppiness is to be expected, but the bitterness should not dominate other flavors. This porter, with its softer, sweeter, stronger caramel flavor, differs from the roasted robust dark porter. The brown porter is light- to medium-bodied, and ranges in alcohol from 4.5% to 5.5% ABV.

Background: Gray's Bully Porter is a new beer for the Janesville brewer. Owner and brewmaster Fred Gray first made his brown porter this past April. The recipe calls for caramel malt with no roasted barley or black malt, resulting in a deep brown color and malty flavor. It's not overly sweet, but you can taste the caramel malt tones from the initial aroma through the finish.

Bully Porter uses a bulldog on the label, a reference to the family pet belonging to Fred's grandmother, Margaret Gray. Fred says the dog, known as Bully, was a slobber dog -- a mouth-watering image for his porter! Margaret, or Peggy, as she was known, actually ran Gray Brewing for nearly 40 years following the death of her husband, Charles, in 1945.

Gray's Bully Porter is a year-round beer. It takes about three weeks from brew to bottle, and finishes around 4.5% ABV. It sells for $9/six-pack, or at the Tied House for $4/pint or $14/growler (and $10/refill).

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Firm malty.
  • Appearance: Deep brown color with a thick, marbled tan head.
  • Texture: Medium-bodied, round and smooth.
  • Taste: Caramel maltiness really comes through, yet well balanced.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: A malty sweetness with a hint of smokiness.

Glassware: The beer will do okay in the standard bar pint, but porter is a beer meant to be served in an English pint, with its slight taper near the lip, to focus the malty nose and the ridge near where you thumb and forefinger rest in a good position for sipping.

Pairs well with: This makes for a versatile lunch burger brew. Don't let the color mislead you into thinking this is a heavy, chewy brew. Its taste is clean, with a slight sweet emphasis that matches with most any burger you can put next to it. Bully Porter is great beer for the basic cheeseburger, barbecue or sausage. I think it would also compliment pot roast, meatloaf, or a casserole dish of heavy, warm comfort food. But in July, go with the cheeseburger on the grill!

Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).

The Consensus: C- (not worthy) from Beer Advocate and a 15 from Rate Beer.

The Verdict: Don't confuse Bully Porter with a robust or roasted variant that has aggressive smoky tones. I'd like to offer a different opinion from some critics, and say this is a very nice "brown" porter. It's milder, smoother and cleaner than what you might expect from a porter, especially if you are looking for an assertive dark beer that borders on being a stout. I do like Gray's Winter Porter for its dark color and roasted finish, but this beer wasn't supposed to be that. While I might like a little more body and mouth feel, for my taste, this beer is in the tradition of Porters from the mid-1700s. I tip my glass to Gray for this one.

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