New Year’s Stout Summit

Stout lovers are never restricted by weather when it comes to enjoying their favorite versions of the style, but few would argue that Winter is the finest time to crack open a big, black monster beer and savor it slowly.  Stouts are my favorite style, so I thought I’d gather some and see how they stack up against one another.

There’s not much color comparison, obviously.  Slight variations in the hue of the head exist, but these stouts are black, black, and black, with minute variations when held directly to light.  Conversely, the robust constitution and strong yet malleable flavor of most stouts make them particularly accommodating to strange ingredients.  There’s a wild side to this traditional beer, and brewers have tried just about everything to set their special stouts apart from the crowd.  Perhaps no bottles provide more interesting reading than Mikkeller’s, a “gypsy” brewery out of Denmark.  Aside from a specialized pub, the brewer has no brewery, completing his experiments at various other breweries.  That fact, coupled with their unrelentingly interesting beers, gives the product a certain mystique.  Who could resist the call of their barrel-aged Black Hole, a Russian Imperial Stout done up with all manner of flavors?  I tried the version made with coffee, vanilla and honey and aged in tequila barrels.  Firstly, it’s almost too beautiful to drink.  A grand mocha colored head leaves exquisite lacing behind, and the aroma is as complex as one could want.  When I finally got around to drinking it, words actually failed me.  The tequila finish is bolder than I expected, and by the time I was done contemplating the maze of flavors in the initial taste, the tequila took over.  There’s dark fruit, a silken texture, and a befuddling interplay of coffee, vanilla, honey and tequila that simply must be tasted to be understood.

Coffee is a common flavor in stouts, and there are a ton of great bean-forward examples to be had.  American breweries have mastered the style in a variety of ways. Even Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams to you and me) has gotten in on the growing style, releasing their Black and Brew as part of their mixed winter pack.  It’s a good one, but it can’t match the outright deliciousness of Founder’s Breakfast Stout or Terrapin Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout (also known as Wake and Bake).  Those beers sit at the head of the coffee stout table with good reason.  In both instances, the coffee flavor is warmer and richer and the overall taste more complex than that of the Black and Brew.

Imperial Stouts are a prized possession for many beer lovers, and the abundance of easily obtainable, quality versions has been a blessing.  Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout is one of the most well-regarded and widely available imperial stouts, and it has been known to go on sale for as little as $5.99 per four-pack.  At 10 percent alcohol, and with a viscous feel and indulgent flavor of chocolate, molasses, and alcohol-soaked dark fruit, it’s the perfect companion to a chilly night and a bargain even at full retail.  The high alcohol content of Imperial Stout makes it perfect for aging, and a couple of years can work wonders for smoothness.  Terrapin released The Dark Side Belgian Style Imperial Stout in 2009, and I found it drank nicely two years on.  Rather than alcohol, the taste is of roasted coffee and tart dark fruit with a yeasty Belgian zing and a warm finish of chocolate liqueur.  I’ve never been a fan of Rogue Ales, but when they released bottles of their 2008 XS Imperial Stout a couple of years ago, I had to pick one up.  I held on to the imposing porcelain bottle for nearly two years before opening, and I was rewarded not with a complex aged beer but an average, somewhat chalky stout.  I don’t think any more Rogue products will be found in my fridge any time soon.

For those who crave a more traditional stout, the options are practically limitless.  If regular ‘ol Guinness isn’t adventurous enough for you, step up to their Foreign Extra Stout, which offers not only more alcohol but a hoppier overall experience while still retaining a nice creaminess.  The canned Butternuts Moo Thunder Stout is one of the most drinkable stouts around, with a creamy consistency and subtle roasty notes in front of a bitter flourish.  Wild Onion Brewing, out of Illinois, makes a fairly average canned stout simply called Jack Stout.  There’s a smoky aspect that keeps it interesting, but nothing overtly remarkable.  For a stellar example of an oatmeal stout, one can do no better than St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout by McAuslan Brewing out of Quebec.  For the style, it is perfection, hitting all of the familiar chocolaty, roasty stops along the way to a fine beer.  Ipswich Oatmeal Stout by Mercury Brewing takes a more balanced approach, cutting out some of the roasted quality but perhaps landing even closer to a perfect style representation.  In the same vein, Sprecher’s Irish Dry Stout is a flawless representation of a timeless style.  This Wisconsin brewery knows how to set itself apart, and not just with their solid beer lineup and amazing sodas –  they bottle in 16 ounce bottles as well.

North Carolina’s capable breweries are no longer ignoring the style, and right now Duck Rabbit Milk Stout and Foothills Sexual Chocolate are the clear torchbearers for stouts in our state.  Olde Hickory Brewing has also inspired nationwide interest with their line of stouts, including the fantastic everyday drinker Hickory Stick Stout and the prized Event Horizon, which is aged in bourbon barrels (look for my report on all four of Olde Hickory’s 2011 stouts soon). Pisgah Brewing’s stouts, like Valdez and Nitro Stout, are arguably the strongest part of their lineup, though they’re nearly impossible to find in bottles, even near the brewery.  I’d like for Roth’s Dark Construct Sweet Stout to be better, but after many tries on tap and one bottle purchase, I’ve yet to be significantly impressed, and the widely available Highland Black Mocha Stout is consistently average.  Of recent and very disappointing note is the limited release of Kind Beers Coffee Oatmeal Stout, contract brewed at Thomas Creek.  If you can get to the beer, which is guarded by a beastly synthetic cork and heavy duty caging, the smell will turn you on.  Overall, though, it’s “kind” of a letdown, thin-bodied and unremarkable.

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