A Viking and a Ninja walk into a bar…
There’s no telling where that one’s going to go, but you just know somebody’s going to die.
Craft breweries choose all sorts of motifs when naming their creations, and martial-themed beers are far from rare; see Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea, Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Commodore Perry IPA, and Highland Brewing Company’s Black Watch Double Chocolate Milk Stout (named for the historic Scottish military regiment) for some more well-known examples.
Other instances of battle-themed beer include our introductory Ninja and Viking, in the form of Asheville Brewing Company’s Ninja Porter and Orkney Brewery’s Skull Splitter. While these are two completely different beers, they have this in common: they are both excellent exemplars of the styles that they represent.
Ninja Porter is an American Porter, a style that is descended from the English Porter, a workingman’s beer that dates to the 1700s, when it was a blend of old ale, new ale (either a brown ale or a pale ale) and a mild ale, the combination providing a hard-working public with a pleasing— and popular— balance between flavor and drinkability. Modern English Porters typically employ a pale malt base, adding black, chocolate, crystal or smoked brown malt or, more uncommonly, roasted malt. Typically restrained hop usage results in a malt-forward dark ale with significant malt complexity. While American Porters can stray fairly far afield from the parent style, Ninja Porter sticks pretty close to home.
Across the Tweed, while the British working-class was drinking its Porters, Scotsmen were warding off the damp chill with the Wee Heavy, or Scotch Ale. The Wee Heavy is a potent type of ale traditionally brewed in Scotland, and the modern style has some definitional characteristics that may or may not be true to the original style— there is plenty of disagreement among beer experts about the true historical brewing of the Scotch Ale.
Modern Wee Heavies that are “true to style,” like Skull Splitter, are malt-forward with moderate-to-low hop flavor and bitterness, and low-to-no hop aroma. Rather than using a strong hop presence to to counterbalance the alcohol, the Wee Heavy relies instead on a deliciously complex, multi-layered caramel character that plays nicely off of the booze. The warmth of the alcohol, in turn, offsets the malt’s monopoly on the character of the beer. Due to lower fermentation temperatures, proper Wee Heavies are cleaner than their English counterparts, with less fruity character; whatever esters do form should be darker (like plum or raisin notes). Roast or smoke character should be light, if present at all.
Ninja Porter – Asheville Brewing Company – Asheville, NC
American Porter, 5.7% ABV
Ninja Porter looks the part: a medium, rocky, light-tan head perches atop an effervescent, darkest brown body with sullen orange highlights; head retention is brief, and lacing is fair, consisting of complex rotten bands and arabesques. The nose is a deeply sweet, enticing blend of cola, cocoa, and molasses with hints of toffee and milk chocolate, all topped by significant alcohol overtones. The palate is not as rich and complex as the nose would predict, but it is nonetheless quite pleasing: an undifferentiated dark malt flavor that touches on cola, milk chocolate and molasses, with sweet and bitter in almost perfect balance. The finish is a modest hit of bitter cocoa and a nip from the carbonation; the linger is a very slightly bitter, thin chocolate flavor that lasts for awhile. Mouthfeel is light for the body, as befits the style, and the texture is slightly sticky, medium creamy and medium-peppery from the lively carbonation. This porter drinks very well for how expressive the dark malt is.
Malts: Pale, Munich, Crystal-40, Chocolate, Roasted Barley
Hops: Mt. Hood, Northern Brewer and Cascade
Skull Splitter – The Orkney Brewery – Orkney, Scotland
Scotch Ale, 8.5% ABV
There are two parts to the story as regards the flavor of this high-tension (8.5% ABV) Scotch Ale: sweetly and enjoyably complex malt notes and alcohol. These are two of the defining flavor characteristics of the breed, and Orkney gets it right. This is a deep-amber ale that pours to a large, creamy head on a medium-bodied beer. On the palate it presents a creamy texture and soft carbonation that combine with an admirably balanced finish to produce a surprising level of drinkability considering the ABV. As is typical of Scotch Ales, the malt flavors run between toffee and caramel, with some dark fruit notes from caramelization during the long boil, and hops are largely absent. The sweetness of the malt is nicely balanced by the clean, warming flavor of the alcohol. Dangerously drinkable.
Malts: Maris Otter, crystal, chocolate and malted wheat
Hops: East Kent Golding