Tag Archives: Imperial Stout

A World of Stouts for Your Weekend

The Lucky Seven Selection

Blame Guinness for declaring St. Patrick’s Weekend. Not that I’m complaining. Stouts of all stripes are among my favourite beers, after all. Guinness has also given me an excuse to bundle my occasional Saturday Six-Pack Series together with the commemoration of a saint who drove snakes out of a country that has never seen a snake. IMG_6648We’ll leave that to naturalists and hagiographers to debate while we tuck into a few stout beers.

Stouts, though. Not exactly a clear-cut style. Case in point: the marked proliferation of sub-styles in the 2015 edition of the BJCP Style Guidelines compared with the 2008 edition –– proof positive that style categories are anything but static. And then we have all those legends worthy of St. Patrick, guaranteed to keep self-styled beer historians debating till the wee hours. Though I’m not (yet) what I’d call a historian of beer, I know enough about the shifting sands of beer styles to say that you’re not alone if you’ve ever confused a porter with a stout. And don’t even get started with Russian Stouts. Or do. Interesting stories of icy sea journeys and opulent courts abound, along with no shortage of confusion over nomenclature. For now, I’m content to let the legends be. If nothing else, the heated debates and sedulous myth-busting make for entertaining reading.

Fine-grained differences between stouts and the family resemblance with porters aside, just what is it about stouts that keep us coming back for more, century after century? It’s worth quoting Ray Daniels, one of the more lucid writers on homebrewing caught up in an alliterative moment:

Perhaps it is the blinding blackness of the brew as it sits in the glass – a sort of barroom black hole so intense that it might absorb everything around it.

He continues:

Those who finish their first glass often become converts, swearing allegiance and setting off on a sybaritic search for the perfect pint.

Twenty years after Daniels wrote those words, our love affair with stouts shows no sign of abating. Bourbon County Brand Stout, anyone? Or how about Dark Lord Day – which, incidentally, has its very own website?

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For this edition of your “Lucky Seven” Saturday Six-Pack, I’m going to leave the emerald isles to their celebrations and sample what lies beyond the traditional Anglo-Irish homeland of stouts. Much as I love plenty of American stouts, enough has been written about these justifiably sought-after beers, so I’ll save a sixer of those for another day.

Regardless of which version of the history of the style you read, one element of the story stands out in all versions: Stout is an eminently international beverage, with examples from just about every continent. The stouts I talk about below are, for the most part, available in any well-stocked North American bottle shop. As for the Austrian and Czech examples? Whether you live in Los Angeles or Latvia, you’ll need to get a little closer to the source. Never a bad thing, exploring new beer regions.

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Rasputin (Brouwerij de Molen, Netherlands). Why not start off with a beer that tips its hat to that infamous lover of the Russian Queen? The lightest-hued stout in this mixed pack, Rasputin is no black knight, but also no lightweight at 23º Plato and 10.4% alcohol. Translation: plenty of malt, and more than enough octane to go the distance.Brouwerij de Molen website (03-bierografiebanner) And like any wise master of intrigue, it hides its claws. Cocoa-dusted ganache, dark cherry, chocolate milk, and plenty of rich Ovaltine-like malt herald a palate of bitter black coffee, prune, and earthy-anise licorice. Café au lait and bourbon vanilla bean linger in the background of this medicinally bitter beer. The beer was bottled in August 2015 and carries a balsy best-by date of 2040, so I’d suggest giving this beer a few years to round out. Brouwerij de Molen has created a tidy little niche for itself with its big beers. You can also check out my extended review of their Hel & Verdoemenis Imperial Stout.

Espresso Stout (Hitachino Nest, Japan). You may be familiar with the little red owl adorning Hitachino Nest’s beer labels, but what you might not know is that this spectacularly successful brand started as a side-project of a saké kura in the Tohoku region of Japan.IMG_6654 Kiuchi Brewery knows a thing or two about the art of fermentation, and it shows in their beers. Even if the Espresso Stout’s coffee notes are a touch too “jalapeno green” for my taste, it nonetheless delivers a satisfying cup of espresso spiked with dark chocolate, mocha, and chocolate liqueur. Black cherry and prune lurk in the depths, and an earthy herbal-spiciness evoking sassafras lends intrigue to this export-strength stout (7% ABV).

Morrigan Dry Stout (Pivovar Raven, Plzeň, Czech Republic). A stout isn’t the first beer you’d expect to come across in the town where a particularly ubiquitous beer style was born. Echoing the understated brewing tradition of western Bohemia, Raven’s Morrigan is the kind of stout that doesn’t rely on barrels or tonnes of malt to win over its admirers. As impenetrable as the Bohemian Forest at night, Morrigan offers up dark notes of earthy cocoa powder and an ever-so-slight smokiness from the roasted malts.IMG_6464 Mocha and dark cherry brighten up the beer’s countenance, with café au lait and a touch of milk caramel adding a suggestion of sweetness to this elegantly austere, tautly balanced dry stout. One Tankard.

Imperial Stout, (Nøgne Ø, Norway). Nøgne Ø prides itself on its uncompromising approach to quality, an approach reflected not only in its beers. The brewery’s name pays homage to the famous Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, who used the poetic term, “naked island,” to describe “the stark, barren, outcroppings that are visible in the rough seas off Norway’s southern coast.” Nøgne Ø’s rich and unctuous imperial stout forms the perfect antipode to images of steel-hued coastlines ravaged by waves. Lyric aromas of espresso, prune, molasses, dark bread, vanilla, cookie dough, walnut, and a touch of salted caramel cascade forth from this jet-black beer –– a dreamy complexity that retains its harmoniousness throughout. Chocolate notes take center stage on the moderately sweet and rounded palate. Cocoa-dusted prune mingles with milk chocolate-coated pecans; baking spice hop notes intertwine with artisanal dark bread and a smooth, understated bitterness. Note: This example was bottled in October 2012 and consumed in March 2016. File under cellar-worthy, and take Nøgne Ø’s advice regarding serving temperature (12ºC). Two Tankards.

Lion Stout (The Ceylon Brewery, Carlsberg Group, Sri Lanka). Formerly grouped under the Foreign Extra Stout category in the BJCP Style Guidelines, Tropical Stout is now a category of its own (16C, for anyone interested). If you’re new to the style, expect a sweet, fruity stout with a smooth roast character –– somewhere between a stepped-up milk stout and a restrained imperial stout. Opaque ruby-violet black with a brooding brown foam cap concealing 8.8 percent of alcohol, Lion Stout is not for the faint of heart. Fruit aromas of currants, burnt raisin, and prune combine with a vinous character not unlike a tart-cherry Chianti. Underneath it all lurks a smoky-roasty bass note that keeps company with licorice, acidic dark chocolate, and mocha. The dark chocolate and vinous acidity carries over onto the palate, balanced by creamy mocha and velvety alcohol. Rum-soaked cherries strike a pose with earthy licorice, while mild notes of roast-smoke intertwine with cocoa-dusted milk chocolate and dried currants. Surprisingly buoyant for its alcohol and malt heft, this is one dangerously drinkable beer. One Tankard.

Royal Dark (Biermanufaktur Loncium, Austria). What would a “lucky seven 6-pack” of stouts be without an entry from the lands known more for their lagers and wheat beers? Even if Austria isn’t legally bound by the Reinheitsgebot, many Austrian brewers proudly proclaim their allegiance to these strictures governing beer purity.Loncium - Mtn Toast Not a bad thing, but more often than not, adherence to the Reinheitsgebot translates into a limited selection of beer styles in Austria. Up until recently, home-grown stouts and porters were rare birds indeed. Enter Loncium, a pioneering brewery hailing from the southern province of Carinthia noted for its dramatic Alpine scenery. Loncium’s pleasant milk stout features a dusting of cocoa powder, a dollop of caramel, a touch of dark cherry, and a hint of bread crust. Scents of fresh-ground coffee, mocha, and a suggestion of smoke from the roasted malts round out the aromas. Coffee with cream gives way to baking spice and dark berry notes on the palate. Smooth, off-dry, and with the mildest bitterness, you could almost call this beer a café-au-lait stout.

Imperial Stout (Midtfyns Bryghus, Denmark). Overture: Onyx, with tinges of ruby. Waves of malt and a judicious hand with the oak. Act I: Toasted toffee, crème caramel, and smoky dark chocolate opening out onto cookie dough, bourbon vanilla bean, cocoa-spiked molasses, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and Vollkornbrot.Vollkornbrot (www-quora-net) Intermission: Full-bodied and silky –– right on the border between whole milk and light cream. Act II and aria: Black Forest cherry cake and a buttery pecan nuttiness countered by a splash of rum. Curtain call: Off-dry and fruity-jammy, with raisin and juicy prune lingering well into the sunset. Expansive and stellar. Three Tankards.

With that I say cheers! And vive la sybaritic search for la perfect pint of stout!

Further Reading:

Ron Pattinson, “What’s the Difference between Porters and Stouts?All About Beer (August 27, 2015).

Martyn Cornell, “Imperial Stouts: Russian or Irish?” posted on his Zytophile blog (26 June 2011).

Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 1996).

For a fleeting hint at the colonial history behind stouts in places like Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Jamaica, see Jenny Pfäfflin, “Chicagoist’s Beer of the Week: Lion Stout,” Chicagoist (July 10, 2015).

Consult the links contained in the text above for more information on the individual breweries.

Images

Brouwerij de Molen banner: http://brouwerijdemolen.nl/beers/

Loncium brewers in the Alps: www.loncium.at

Vollkornbrot: https://www.quora.com/

All other images: F.D. Hofer

Related Tempest Articles

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie, Goose Island, Victory

The Curiosity Cabinet: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée

Bourbon Squared: Maple-Glazed Pork Belly Meets Barrel-Aged Beer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

To age, or not to age?

This temporal variation of a timeless existential question is one that’s being asked with growing frequency in the craft beer world.IMG_2369But even if cellaring beer has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation of late, it’s still relative terra incognita for the craft beer community writ large.

Beer and Time. To age, or not to age? You’d be forgiven for considering the question absurd, for we’ve been conditioned to think that old beer is bad beer. And in most cases, beer doesn’t fight a winning battle with time.

IMG_4459That said, not all beers are brewed equally – and I don’t mean this in a normative sense. Many beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. But some beers are destined for the longue durée: in plain English, the cellar.

Before we descend too many steps into the cobwebbed darkness, let me state categorically that there’s no reason why a beer shouldn’t be consumed fresh, even if it’s a candidate for aging. A bottle of just-released Boulevard Saison-Brett is every bit as good as one that has battled with the spiders in your cellar for a year or more. And time will transform the perfectly drinkable Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barley wines destined to hit the shelves in the coming months into something all together different. Therein lies the fun of experimenting. But don’t take my word for it. Try for yourself!

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What follows are tips and basic rules of thumb to get you started. Even if you don’t have the most ideal conditions, start by laying down a few age-worthy beers for six months to a year.

  1. Friends and foes.

Beer prefers cool, dark places. Light –– especially sunlight –– will skunk your beer in no time. Heat isn’t kind to beer either. Prolonged periods of storage north of 70F (21C) will accelerate oxidation, and leave your beer resembling cardboard. You might already be acquainted with the stale taste of those unfortunate yet otherwise stellar Central European beers that have arrived in North American bars and bottle shops in tatters.

If you’re planning on getting serious about long-term cellaring, temperature control is key. It can mean the difference between a stellar imperial stout five years down the road, or a long, melancholy walk to the sink to pour it all down the drain.IMG_1893 Not only does beer like darkness and coolness, it’s also a bit like Goldilocks –– not too hot, not too cold, and happiest at a constant temperature between about 50F (10C) and 60F (15C). If your conditions are too warm, bacteria that are less active at lower temperatures come out to play. What’s more, the yeast that contribute to that slow, magical transformation in bottle-conditioned beers won’t live to tell about their journey at high temperatures. Too cold, and all these gradual changes are slowed down to a snail’s pace, or arrested altogether. (Better too cold than too warm, though.)

Actual cellars or basements are best, should you have access to a cellar or basement. Your fridge will work in a pinch. And if you have a wine fridge, you’re set. That’s where I hide away all my gueuzes, Belgian quads, barley wines, imperial stouts barrel-aged or otherwise, and any other beers boasting a best-before date years from now.

  1. Tried-and-True.

Cellaring beer involves a certain amount of experimentation, but you can start off on the right track with styles like barley wines, imperial stouts, Baltic porters, Scotch ales, Belgian quads, barrel-aged beers, and Doppelbocks like Samichlaus. You may have noticed a pattern here. These beers usually clock in well above 7% ABV, with the high amount of alcohol acting as a preservative. These styles also typically contain plenty of malt, leaving enough residual sugar for the yeast to slowly convert into caramel, chocolate, or dark fruit flavours –– flavours that meld well with oxidative notes such as nuts and sherry.

The malt plus high ABV equation isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Highly acidic beers and/or those fermented with wild yeast strains also tend to develop in pleasantly surprising ways over the long haul.IMG_3458 Lambics, gueuzes, Flemish reds (the vintage-dated Rodenbach is stellar), and many American sours and Brett beers are worth the wait. Saisons are finicky, but I’ve had great luck with higher-ABV offerings such as those from Funkwerks in Fort Collins, and have found that both batches of high-ABV saison I brewed had mellowed and evolved more complex tropical fruit notes by the time they had hit one year.

  1. Good Housekeeping.

Get a sense of which beers do well within certain windows of time. Some beers you can deep-six and forget about; others may improve with some age, but decline rapidly after a certain point. Keep track, because as your cellar grows, you will lose track. I note down the following:

  • Name of beer and brewery.
  • Vintage date, if any.
  • Date purchased.
  • Place purchased. (At the brewery? At a bottle shop? This may affect your decision about how long you’d like to age a beer. Unless you know the folks at your bottle shop well, you may not have the best sense of how the bottles have been handled before arriving on a particular shelf.)
  • Number of bottles purchased.
  • Style. (Some styles hold up better than others.)
  • Ballpark estimate of the “best before” date, unless indicated on the label. (Low-ball this one: better to drink too early than too late).
  • Tasting notes –– the fun part! (In addition to the usual tasting notes, I add details such as date consumed, how well the beer held up, speculations on whether the beer could have aged longer, and the like.)
  1. Go Vertical.

Arranging a vertical tasting is an excellent way to see how beers evolve. A vertical tasting is comprised of a selection of the same beer or wine but from different vintages –– say, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Not all beers are released with vintage dates, but an increasing number are. If you’re lucky, your bottle shop might offer verticals of the same beer for a reasonable price. If not, simply seek out some cellar-worthy beer. Widely available and relatively inexpensive beers like North Coast’s Old Stock Ale or Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot make excellent building blocks for your future vertical tastings. Lay down about three bottles of the same beer per year and then invite some regular drinking compadres over for a treat a few years hence. Open up three or four different vintages, starting with the most recent vintage and working your way back. Doing this only once in your life will drive home how much of a difference time can make.

  1. You Never Step in the Same River Twice.

IMG_4476Even if the vast majority of the biochemical reactions have long since taken place before the beer ends up in the bottle, beer components like oxygen, proteins, tannins, and esters continue their pas-de-deux well into the wee hours of the ensuing months and years.

*Bitterness mellows, and the jagged edges of alcoholic heat become more rounded.

*Oxidized characteristics start to emerge. Some of these enhance the beer, while others indicate that the beer may be becoming more fit for malt vinegar. A few descriptors for your tasting notes: straw, leather, sherry, nuts, port-like, earthy, woody. In some Belgian sours, you might even notice beguiling notes of high-end balsamic vinegar.

*Hop character fades, while malt notes intensify, especially in melanoidin-rich beers like Scotch ales or barleywines.

*Sweetness can also become more pronounced –– due, in no small part, to the decrease in hop intensity. Expect more dark honey and toffee.

*Stale, vinegar, cardboard. Damn. If any of these characteristics predominate, your gamble didn’t pay off, or you left the beer in the cellar for too long.

The Faustian Bargain.

Cellaring is a gamble. You’ll have some sublime tasting experiences, but be prepared for the occasional disappointment of diabolical proportions. This is not an exact science, and most of us are still learning which styles benefit from some age, and which don’t. But that’s the fun of it.

***

As an idea, aging beer has barely hit adolescence. As a body of knowledge, it’s still very much a collaborative project. I’ve shared some pointers above, and have listed Tempest articles below that touch upon aging beer. Do you have experiences with cellaring beer as well? Share them in the comments!

Further Reading

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Marking Time with a Brett-Saison from Boulevard

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

Andy Sparhawk, “Cellaring Craft Beer,” Craft Beer (August 2015).

Alistair Bland, “Vintage Beer?The Salt, NPR (January 2015).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

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.

After Hell and Damnation Comes Redemption: Brouwerij de Molen’s Imperial Stout

Brouwerij de Molen is one serious brewery. No brightly coloured logos or designs. Spare black-and-white text-centric labels are clean and to the point. Colour and bittering units. Brewing date: 02 March 2011. Bottling date: 08 April 2011. IMG_9739Ingredients. Bottle 889 of 2144. Drink at 15 Celsius. Original Gravity: 1115. Final Gravity: 1031. Translation: not a Munich Helles. About two-thirds of the way down, the label issues what reads like an implicit provocation: “Good for 25 years.” And if I partake too early, is Hel & Verdoemenis (hell and damnation) my fate?

Twenty-five years is an eternity in beer years – and in Tempest years.

I moved halfway across the continent this past summer, right into the middle of a heat wave. I took all the necessary precautions to protect my age-worthy beers and wines from the elements. But who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the heat got to the beer over those thousands of miles. After all, if I were to age this for a prolonged period of time, wouldn’t it be wise to have a baseline for comparison? Ah, the easy justifications. And then I thought about my recent article praising subtlety in beer. What better way to follow it up than to crack a 10.2% ABV beer with the consistency of motor oil and a riot of flavours and aromas? Life’s worth some damnation from time to time.

Brouwerij de Molen’s Hel & Verdoemenis issues forth from a windmill constructed in 1697, and is of a piece with the brewery’s penchant for high-octane beers capped with names that portend doom and gloom.Brouwerij de Molen - Windmill Like their 15.2% Bommen & Granaten barley wine, for example. If a case ever exploded, it would probably light up a small neighbourhood. Hel & Verdoemenis is an imperial stout – a beer that epitomizes the antipode of subtlety. The style emerged in late-1700s England, and, like its cousin, porter, was a child of the Industrial Revolution. The scale of its production made it eminently suitable for trade. Long voyages across high seas and vast lands meant that these beers had to be brewed with malt and hops aplenty to survive a journey destined for Hanseatic German and Baltic ports, Poland, Scandinavia, and Russia further afield. By the time the casks arrived in St. Petersburg, they had been rendered sufficiently complex by secondary fermentation that they attracted the notice of the Russian imperial court.

Today’s versions of this historical style known variously as “Russian” or “imperial” stout split broadly into Anglo-European and American interpretations. Hel & Veroemenis plants its flag firmly in Europe, using Czech Premiant hops as the bittering agent, and German hops from Hallertau for finishing.

Now, before we drink this, we’d do well to use the force and follow the label’s advice: Drink at 15 Celsius. I say “use the force” because it’s counter-intuitive for most North American beer drinkers to drink a beer at or near room temperature. Let’s also go in search of a brandy snifter to hold this viscous, dense, inky jet-black stout. The snifter helps to concentrate the aromatics, of which there are many. Don’t be alarmed if there isn’t much of a head on the beer. That’s common for high-gravity beers. But be careful at the end of the pour, unless you want that dose of Vitamin B contained in the sediment.

And now for those cascading waves of aromas and flavours worthy of a barrage of adjectives and the occasional foray into purple prose. In a word, profound, like the depths of a forest at dusk. Dense, concentrated, kettle-caramelized malt intermingles with dark country bread and freshly-crushed grain. Earthy licorice root and star anise shade into aged saké, with a wisp of roasted barley, smoke, and leather in the folds. Chocolate anchors the aromas and flavours, now fruity and acidic, now rich and smoky, spanning a spectrum from sweet cocoa to bitter-sweet hot chocolate. Coffee of the robust, nutty, and mildly acidic kind announces its presence, and dark caramel puts in a belated appearance.

On the palate, this chewy stout is as thick as Turkish coffee is rich. Stewed and concentrated plum emerge as the beer opens up, finishing on a high note of smoky bitter-sweet chocolate. With such concentrated flavours, the mild-but-firm hop spice is a more than welcome touch, and the chocolate acidity gives the dark caramel, dark fruit cake, and molasses characteristics sufficient lift.

But alas, even an abundance of adjectives cannot succeed in composing a pitch-perfect beer. For all its wonderfully viscous intensity, the beer’s complexity is more variegated than interlaced at this point. Drinking superbly now, a few more years should help meld the at-times cacophonous elements into a more harmonious chorus.

2 Tankards, with the proviso that more age will likely propel this beer into the 3 Tankard realm.

Final notes:

  • This is a beer that behaves like a wine. Open it, drink, let it open up, drink some more.
  • Excellent with soft cheeses like Jasper Hill Farm’s herbal and tangy bark-wrapped Harbison, Hel & Verdoemenis also makes a great slow-sipping night cap that will not lead to perdition, provided you don’t have too many.
  • At about $9 for a 330mL bottle, it’s not the cheapest bottle on the shelf. I’m skeptical that any bottles I buy in the future will make it to twenty-five years, but if this initial taste is any indication of sublimity to come, I’m in for the long term.

IMG_9740

Related Tempest Posts:

Bourbon in Michigan: Barrel-Aged Beer along the Great Lakes

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

Winter Nights and Warming Barleywines from Sussex, Texas, and Québec

Sources:

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

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

Bourbon in Michigan: Barrel-Aged Beer along the Great Lakes

With its rich aromas and flavours, bourbon barrel-aged beer evokes late fall hues and heralds the coming of winter. In this, the first of what I intend be an occasional series of posts tracking barrel-aged and sour beers across North America, I sample some of what the Michigan shores of the Great Lakes have to offer: Founders’ Backwoods Bastard, and New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk.

Despite its recent and growing popularity, barrel-aged beer is far from new. Lambic and Flemish red ales call to mind examples of traditional European beer production in which wooden barrels have long been a fixture. What is relatively novel and entirely indigenous to the United States, though, is the selection of a particular vessel for aging beer: the bourbon barrel. Goose Island’s venerable Bourbon County Stout dates back to 1992 and is, according to the brewery, the beer that originated the bourbon barrel-aged category.

Beer Barrels 2

On this side of the pond, bourbon has made a distinct and indelible impression on the craft beer drinker’s palate – to the tune of seven bourbon barrel-aged beers occupying the first twenty-five spots on BeerAdvocate’s “Top 250 Beers” list. Not only is the acronym “BAB” gaining traction, barrel-aged beer now has its own feast day of sorts inscribed on the craft beer calendar. For those who missed out on this year’s Barrel-Aged Beer Day, mark October 3, 2014, on your calendars so that you, too, can partake of the excitement of yet another “Beer Style XYZ Day.”

The Great Lakes region is home to a number of reputable bourbon beers. Along with Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, Three Floyds in Indiana produces a series of bourbon barrel-aged offerings that have included renditions of their Black Sun Stout and Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. Michigan, too, has no shortage of renowned bourbon beers, with bourbon-inspired variations of Bell’s Black Note Stout, Dark Horse’s Plead the 5th Imperial Stout, and Short’s Bourbon Wizard Barley Wine, offering craft beer enthusiasts some compelling choices along the way. (Like many brewers that have been bitten by the barrel bug, Dark Horse rolls out not one, but several, bourbon beer offerings.) So entrenched has the enthusiasm for bourbon beers become that Carson’s American Bistro in Ann Arbor is poised this Thursday to offer an autumnal repast of Citrus-Cured Pork Belly, Duck Confit, and Pumpkin Tres Leches Cake to pair with a selection of bourbon beers.

If you’re in the market for some bourbon beer to pair with your own Thanksgiving feast, and if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with solid distribution of “Michigan bourbons,” neither Founders’ Backwoods Bastard Scotch-style ale nor New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk stout will let you down.

The 2013 edition of Dragon’s Milk has teeth aplenty, clocking in at a weighty 23 degrees Plato and 10% ABV.

NewHolland DragonsMilk 1

The aromas of this ruby-tinged dark brown beer layer a mélange of earthy vanilla-butterscotch oak tones on top of high-octane mocha coffee reminiscent, at times, of Kahlua. Dark cherry, maple syrup, black pepper, and licorice mingle with the malt aromas. A little like liquid brown sugar on the palate, the beer has a velvety texture checked by a firm hand with the bittering hops, reprising the dominant fruit, wood, and mocha aroma notes. An ideal accompaniment to dishes accented with sweeter sauces (maple syrup-glazed pork belly, anyone?), and, of course, dessert.

Founders’ Backwoods Bastard also carries a daunting 10.2% ABV, sure to induce a sound sleep if consumed alongside one too many crème brulées.

FoundersBackwood 3-pack

The bottle I had was from 2012, so wood aromatics of cinnamon sticks and sandalwood from the aging process formed a nice accompaniment to the complex Ovaltine-like malt and vanilla bean nuances. As this elegant brick-red/pecan-brown beer opened up, oak, shortbread, and brown sugar-dusted earthy licorice came to the fore. Expansive and incredibly buoyant on the palate for its ABV heft, Backwoods intertwines flavours of honeyed figs, black cherry, and spice box, with a warming and lasting bright bourbon cherry finish.

New Holland is drinking well now, but could use more time to round out the rougher edges of the roasted coffee, bitter-sweet chocolate, and sharper alcohol tones. With an extra year of age to its advantage, the Founders was more settled and harmonious, presenting an exquisite balance between fruit and malt characteristics of milk caramel, toasted toffee, and molasses-brown sugar.

For some fun, why not practice your blending skills to produce a “Backwoods Dragon”? And don’t forget to drink these beers on the warm side of cellar temperature.

Related Tempest Articles

Bourbon Squared: Maple-Glazed Pork Belly Meets Barrel-Aged Beer

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

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.