It was around the turn of the century when Marty Mendiola brewed his first porter. As he recalls, it was “quite bad.” But he stuck with it and, through ten years of trial-and-error at Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant’s La Jolla brewpub—brewing brown, black, bitter and insert-descriptor-here porters—his technique improved…a lot! Last month, the flagship porter from his current venture, Second Chance Beer Co., took gold at this year’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF). The most prestigious annual brewing competition in the country, earning a medal there is no small feat. Bringing home three golds for the same beer is nearly unheard of, but such is the quality of Mendiola’s toasted porter, Tabula Rasa, which took top honors in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Making it even more impressive, it’s the second of Mendiola’s beers to thrice win in the Robust Porter category at GABF, joining the Moonlight Porter that nabbed bragging rights for Rock Bottom with a silver in 2010, and golds in 2011 and 2013. Clearly some interrogation on such perpetual porter perfection is in order.
Let’s start simply—what is a robust porter?
Porter is a fascinating style for me because it was one of the first beers to really benefit from the advances in malting technology in the 1800s. Before the roaster was perfected, dark malts were quite smoky. The cleaner roasting resulted in a less harsh, smoky and bitter dark ale. Robust porters should have a clean, roasty taste, a bit of caramel malt, a touch of black-malt bitterness and some toastiness to bring it all together.
Why do you believe your porters have fared so incredibly well at GABF?
Of course, you need to have a good beer, but you also need a bit of luck. But as a beer judge reading the style guidelines, I want there to be no doubt that what you taste is exactly what the style guide states. It is clean, roasty and dry. Just simple and tasty.
How have you tweaked your porter recipes throughout the years?
When I abandoned the common proportions of malts, the beer got better. I tried recipes from others, but they were just too bitter and out of balance. I reduced the amounts of some malts and drastically increased the amounts of others, so much so that, after its third GABF award, Rock Bottom wanted to brew Moonlight Porter across the country at every brewpub, and I received several calls from our brewers asking if the recipe was correct because of the unusual proportions of malts. There are a couple of secrets, of course, but I think it is a lot of little details along the way that makes it special. Playing reggae while mashing in is a critical step that is often overlooked. Classic blues guitar while sparging and Led Zeppelin during the boil. There, now you know the secrets.
What are some robust porters you enjoy that aren’t yours?
Sierra Nevada Brewing’s and Samuel Smith’s porters were the first I ever tasted. They just seemed better for my taste than stouts. Like a bigger brown ale, which is also one of my favorite styles.
Do you vary your recipe for Tabula Rasa when adding adjuncts or barrel-aging the beer?
Porter is a fun beer to play with as it can taste great with coffee, cacao nibs and coconut, as well as more crazy ingredients like bananas, plantains, chai spice and black tea, cinnamon and spices, smoky malts, and fruit like cherries and raspberries. We generally don’t barrel-age the normal porter, but we do make an imperial version that ages nicely in bourbon and rum barrels.
Any fun porter-pertinent goings-on scheduled for the near future?
We have made a few kegs of Banana Bread Porter and Chai Porter that are going on tap throughout November exclusively in our tap rooms in Carmel Mountain Ranch and North Park. Our coconut version, Coco Rasa, is on tap most of the time. We will also be making our imperial version for the holidays.