A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie’s Pirate Bomb, Goose Island’s Bourbon County, Victory’s Dark Intrigue

A few weeks previous I pulled some tasting notes out of the archive, and this time around I’ll reach into the archives again. Different time of year, different cast of beer-tasting amigos, different dramatis personae, beerwise: A Victory Dark Intrigue (bottled in November 2011); a vintage-dated 2013 Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout, and a Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Bomb from 2013. But a degree of symmetry, no less. The last tasting was vertical – three vintages of Sofie. IMG_9573This one’s horizontal: three American barrel-aged Imperial Stouts, all high octane.

Historically, high hopping rates matched hefty malt bills to ensure that Imperial Stouts survived the long journey from English breweries to Baltic, Nordic, and Russian destinations. Today, these beers are among the weightiest in the brewer’s repertoire, offering up intense aromas and flavours of coffee, dark chocolate, licorice, and dark fruits suggestive of plums, raisins, and prunes. Caramel, bread, and toast are potential malt signatures, with higher levels of bitterness, roast character, and finishing hops defining many a North American interpretation.

The three barrel-aged Imperial Stouts with which we intrepid beer tasters defied the polar vortex of January 2014 were nothing if not intense. Victory’s Dark Intrigue got our glasses off to a good start IMG_9777with an ale that looked like dense black coffee capped with a lingering tan head. The aesthetics alone promised yet another fine beer from this Pennsylvania brewery impressive for its vast array of beverages. For the past two decades, the German-trained co-founders of Victory have been brewing up highly acclaimed Germanic staples – Prima Pils is one of the best Pilseners west of Bavaria – compelling Belgian renditions, and solid North American standards with whole hops and a reserve of some forty-five yeast strains. Enter Storm King Imperial Stout, one of Victory’s popular North American styles. In 2010, the brewery set aside some of this generously-hopped and roast-inflected brew for aging in barrels from Jim Beam and Heaven Hills Distilleries. So popular was the resultant Dark Intrigue that Victory decided to bring it back for one last hurrah in 2011. Two times a charm?

The aromatics are complex enough: dried figs, caramelized brown sugar, vanilla bean, and butterscotch interweave with earthy undertones of licorice and aged saké; muted pine and resin remind us that this is a North American interpretation of the style. A pleasant cocoa and dark chocolate note emerges on the palate to complement the black olive earthiness and round out the roasted malt and hop bitterness, but unfortunately the fusel heat doesn’t evoke bourbon in any way. (Incidentally, at just over 9% ABV, this beer was the least potent of the cohort – but was hotter than the Pirate Bomb and Bourbon County.) Contrary to the brewers’ label note claiming a five year window for the beer, though, I’m not entirely sure that a few extra years of cellaring would improve Dark Intrigue. A rare miss for Victory.

Bring on the Bourbon County Brand Stout, then! As one of the more widely-hyped releases of the craft beer calendar, Goose Island’s Bourbon County is imbued with so much of an aura that many a smitten craft beer aficionado will approach a bottle as if it were a sacred relic. Despite the hand-wringing in some quarters as to whether or not Goose Island is even a “craft brewery” (Anheuser-Busch InBev controls fifty-eight percent of the company), the cult status of BCBS has not suffered. As of February 26, 2014, both Beer Advocate and Rate Beer peg the beer at 100 points. (I’ll leave it to others to explain how these sites arrive at their scores; for me, it’s never been more than a source of casual amusement.)

All that aside, there’s no messing around with this beer: BCBS clocks in at 14.9% ABV. What’s striking about this coffee-and-pecan-hued dark brown beer is that it effectively IMAG1366conceals its alcohol underneath layers of overripe banana, butter, cookie dough, allspice, chocolate chips, and rum-soaked walnuts. (Sounds vaguely like my Mom’s recipe for banana bread.) And that’s merely the first wave. Sips of this unctuous drink blend the initial scents with mocha, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate on the palate. Let this one open up some and your patience will be rewarded with further aromas of rich brown sugar, maple syrup, and vanilla. Luscious and creamy with a seemingly eternal aftertaste, this may well be all you need for dessert. Don’t be afraid to allow this beer to warm up in the snifter.

And what of the hype? An excellent beer, I will allow. Sublime? Not of the Kantian variety, at any rate. I resist assigning numeric values to the beers I feature in these posts and pages, but suffice it to say that my score for the beer would put it in the same ball park as the Hel & Verdoemenis that I featured several weeks back.

But wait! There’s still another beer, said my friend as he produced a bottle of Prairie’s Pirate Bomb that he had kept sequestered until it was time for a nightcap to follow the Bourbon County dessert. Not yet two years young, Prairie Artisan Ales burst onto the scene with a constantly evolving rotation of farmhouse ales and imperial styles, the majority of which are the product of wild fermentation and/or barrel aging. Prairie has garnered itself a rabidly loyal fan base in Oklahoma, where new releases gather no dust on local bottle shop shelves. But it’s not just the locals who are enamoured of Prairie’s beers: Draft Magazine recently named Prairie a brewery to watch.

Even if the price point is a tad exaggerated for many of their products, the hype surrounding Prairie’s beers is not mere smoke and mirrors. The Birra is a case in point: a complex Saison that manages to hover around 4.5% ABV, crisp and dry, yet not desiccated like some other examples that give the wild yeasts and bacteria too much leeway.

The Pirate Bomb notches up the temperature a few degrees – to 14% ABV. And it’s quite a concoction: “Imperial Stout aged in rum barrels with coffee, cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, and chilies added,” announces the colourful label. Prairie Pirate 2 (prairieales-com)All of these ingredients make their presence known in some way or another in this ruby-tinted black beer crowned with a thick layer of tan-brown foam. The saving grace is the rum component, for the regular Bomb! minus the Pirate is a beer too bitter and unbalanced in the direction of dark-roasted coffee. (I have a few bottles of Bomb! tucked away to see if age will quell these insurgent coffee beans.) With the barrel-aging to sand away some of the rougher edges, Pirate Bomb exhibits nuanced aromas of cocoa, vanilla bean, mocha, chocolate liqueur, and mild smoke. Out of the glass, the rich and creamy medium- to full-bodied liquid carries bitter-sweet flavours of rum-soaked oranges reminiscent of Cointreau-spiked coffee, and finishes with a welcome cocoa-powdery bitterness. An eminently suitable digestif to round out the evening.

In Brief:

Victory’s Dark Intrigue is not among their very best beers. I’d be inclined to drink up. If you still have a bottle in your cellar and drink it in 2015 or 2016, let me know how it tasted.

Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout: dreamy but not otherworldly. I can think of a good handful of other beers I’d rather have with me if stranded on a desert island. Curious to see how the beer would do with some age, but drinking wonderfully now.

Prairie’s Pirate Bomb: My Oklahoma friends will love me, but other friends might cry sacrilege. I tip my hat to the Pirate, by a fraction of a second.

____________________

Sources:

Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, The World Atlas of Beer (New York: Sterling Epicure, 2012).

Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

Michael Jackson, The New World Beer Guide (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).

Images:

Barrels: F.D. Hofer

Dark Intrigue: F.D. Hofer

Bourbon County/Pirate Bomb: Joshua Bradley

Pirate Bomb: www.prairieales.com

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

4 thoughts on “A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie’s Pirate Bomb, Goose Island’s Bourbon County, Victory’s Dark Intrigue

  1. Daegan Miller

    Great review, and glad you’re back in the saddle. Glad I didn’t pony up the $25 or $30 that BCBS was going for out here. Now if only I could get my hands on some Prairie (the saison sounds killer)!

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      $25-$30?! Wow. I’m hoping that’s for a larger-format bottle. (Even then I’d say that the price doesn’t justify the return.) I have to admit that, since it’s never been available in any distribution areas in which I’ve lived, I’m fairly oblivious to the prices commanded by BCBS . Trade value? I have no clue there either. I haven’t gotten involved with the trading scene. The BCBS we sampled was from a 12-oz. bottle that a friend picked up, and I never did ask him how much he paid. The Prairie? Some good stuff. Shelton Bros. distributes their beers. If they have a presence in your area, it’d be worth seeing if they can get some Prairie on your shelves.

      Reply
  2. Tres

    Keep up the good work Franz and glad you are back from the short hiatus! There were two things in this article that raise some comments/questions:

    1) “Historically, high hopping rates matched hefty malt bills to ensure that Imperial Stouts survived the long journey from English breweries to Baltic, Nordic, and Russian destinations.”

    From all the evidence I have seen, this is one of those myths that keeps getting passed along as fact. Similar false claims have also been made that the Russian Imperial Stouts had a higher abv to prevent freezing on the voyage. These are in the same vein as false stories about the origin of the IPA (being that higher hoping rates were needed to make the voyage to India). Martyn Cornell (Zythophile) and Ron Pattinson (Shut Up About Barclay Perkins) have both covered the history of Russian Imperial Stouts on their blogs. Mitch Steele gave a nice talk on IPAs during the 2012 National Homebrew Conference (it looks like the audio and slides for it are currently available for free to non-AHA members), which he said was pulled from his book “IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale”.
    http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/imperial-stout-%E2%80%93-russian-or-irish/
    http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com/2011/10/courage-russian-stout.html
    http://www.homebrewersassociation.org/lets-brew/resources/conference-seminars/

    2) “…Prairie Artisan Ales burst onto the scene with a constantly evolving rotation of farmhouse ales and imperial styles, the majority of which are the product of wild fermentation and/or barrel aging.”

    This make me wonder about the definition of “wild fermentation”. When I hear this I immediately think of spontaneous fermentation (with the use of a coolship or an open fermenter). To the best of my knowledge Prairie has to date only brewed one spontaneously fermented batch (they used a coolship that was mounted in the back of a pickup truck). There is no way to know for certain, but I would be willing to bet that nearly all of their yeast and bacteria were originally (and likely still are) sourced from commercial suppliers. So back to my original point, can the use of an uncommon yeast strain, brettanomyces, bacteria, or a proprietary blend of several strains of the above be labeled as ‘wild’ or does it have to be completely out of the brewers hands and mere happenstance as to what lands in and then ferments the wort? What about collecting and then isolating a single strain (like was done for Rogue Beard)? What about a mutated strain after reusing yeast multiple times? I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer to any of these, but in my opinion think that if the brewer has/is adding a slurry of yeast/bacteria that they (or someone else) has knowingly influenced what was actually in it, then it is not ‘wild fermentation’. Curious about your thoughts.
    http://tablematters.com/2014/02/14/the-coolships-have-landed/

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Tres,

      Thanks for passing along all the reading material! I’ve enjoyed going through all of them over the past day or so. And thanks for raising some pertinent issues. I always end up learning a lot when I engage with these kinds of thoughtful comments.

      Regarding the first point you raise, one could probably write a monograph on the subject. And it looks like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson have grappled with the “myths” surrounding imperial styles in more or less productive ways. What they have written, though, does not invalidate my statement that “[h]istorically, high hopping rates matched hefty malt bills to ensure that Imperial Stouts survived the long journey from English breweries to Baltic, Nordic, and Russian destinations.” Even today, plenty of “facts” support the notion that higher gravity and hopping rates make for a more stable beer – the kind of beer you can stick in your cellar for a time and not worry about it going off. I like my lagers, but unless it’s a Doppelbock (or bottom-fermented Imperial Porter), chances are it won’t stand up well to time and/or travel. Nor does Mitch Steele’s very informative lecture you passed along on the historical development of IPAs run counter to my general point. Original gravities hovering around 1.070 and IBUs in the 70 range for Burton’s India Pale Ales brewed between 1750 and 1900 are certainly not the hallmarks of small beer. A hopping rate of 5-9 lbs/barrel? That’s quite high, even by today’s standards. (I’m aware that alpha acid percentages are an important variable here, but I’ll leave that to the side.)

      Returning to the subject of Stouts – and Porters while we’re at it: the two terms were interchangeable and the styles virtually indistinguishable throughout the 1700s – Ray Daniels includes excellent accounts of the historical development of the styles we have come to call “Porter” and “Stout” in his Designing Great Beers. First published in 1996, the book may be a bit long in the tooth, but Daniels’ observations overlap with and reinforce much of what Martyn Cornell discusses in his more recent article. Cornell’s target is the myth that Stouts bound for Russia were brewed to a higher alcohol to prevent freezing en route. But nowhere does he dispute that stronger beers held up well to journeys over longer distances.

      Of course, not all Imperial XYZ was brewed for export. As the 1822 newspaper clipping on Russian tariffs included in Cornell’s article makes clear, though, the Burton ale that was squeezed out of the Russian market while Porter/Stout continued to find favour was a “RICH PALE and FINE FLAVOURED ALE, of uncommon strength, brewed expressly for that market” (capitals in the original, emphasis mine). The short clipping gives no indication whether this particular beer bore an “imperial” qualifier, but the evidentiary point is that big beers were brewed for that particular market.

      Did the strength of the brew have anything to do with the length of the journey, or was the strength of the brew dictated merely by tastes of “the rich pissheads of the Russian court,” as Ron Pattinson colourfully suggests? These are interesting and, I’d emphasize, open questions that can stimulate further research and lively debate. Incidentally, I think Pattinson forecloses a bit too early on the discussion, driven as he is by his quest to find the smoking guns that debunk the ostensible myths he has in his sights. “God, these extra hops and extra strength for the long voyage stories,” he sighs. “Did the [advertising copy writer for Courage] look at a map? Standard Porter was regularly shipped to the American colonies, a journey more than double that to St. Petersburg. And in the 19th century normal strength Porter was shipped all the way to India.” Well, not to split hairs, but the driving distance between London and St. Petersburg in 2014 is 1723 miles – no mere jaunt down to the supermarket. In the days before the railway, ships would have had to swing well north around Denmark when tacking toward to St. Petersburg. Not quite as far as Boston (or the Caribbean, or India), to be sure, but this journey – for indeed it was one – would have taken some time.

      When you mention myth masquerading as fact, I’m guessing that one of the issues you have in mind is the conflation of “imperial” and “Russian” adjectives modifying the higher-gravity Stouts. In future writings about imperial styles, I’ll link to the articles you sent along so that readers can get a sense of how the same degree of stylistic blurring between Porters and Stouts and their various “imperial” designations were as apparent back then as they are now. And I’ll also add other British imperial destinations such as the Caribbean and India to the list of places to which higher gravity Stouts were shipped, so as not to suggest that all Imperial Stouts and Porters were bound for Russia.

      On to your second point regarding wild fermentation. You got me there. In an earlier version, I had written “Prairie Artisan Ales burst onto the scene with a constantly evolving rotation of farmhouse ales and imperial styles,” and only later added the last bit – “the majority of which are the product of wild fermentation and/or barrel aging” – to signal that the farmhouse side of Prairie’s line-up features yeast and bacteria outside of the more “domesticated” strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I have to admit that I’ve always tended to think of these kinds of yeast and bacteria as “wild” because they can do a number on a brewhouse (and on your homebrew setup) if left to their own devices.

      I think you’re probably right that Prairie’s yeast and bacteria were/still are sourced from commercial suppliers. When I was down at Jester King in December, they mentioned that they’re only now able to transition to “house” strains that started out as commercial strains. Sounds like it took them awhile to select for and cultivate the characteristics they wanted. In Jester King’s case, the house concoction incorporates ambient yeast and bacteria, but is still related to the original commercial example(s). Does this incorporation of ambient yeast and bacteria endemic to the Hill Country mean that the blend has been effectively domesticated? The lambic-style beers that Jester King has been working on lately complicates matters somewhat, for these spontaneously-fermented beers also share in some of the characteristics of the beers that are inoculated with the house blend. Would it then be a misnomer to speak of Jester King’s beers as the product of wild fermentation, or would it be more accurate to refer only to those lambic-style beers as wild-fermented? We’re back to the issue you raised about Prairie.

      If pressed, I suppose that I’d draw the following distinctions. Spontaneous fermentation is wild fermentation, but it lies at the far end of the spectrum in terms of human (non)intervention. Other types of fermentations that make use of commercial or cultured yeast/bacteria outside of the more typical range of ale and lager yeasts could still be called “wild” as well, but not spontaneous. I say all of this with a huge caveat: I’d still have to do plenty of reading/research and talk to people much more knowledgeable than I before rushing into any pronouncements. Super interesting set of questions and issues you’ve posed, though. And that bit you shared with me about Prairie’s coolship is, to say the least, cool.

      Reply

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