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. This 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 with 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 conceals 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. 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.
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.
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).
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.