Styles & Seasonals
December 12, 2002 Written by aracauna
Georgia, UNITED STATES -
On November 16, 2002 three men came together to finally find an answer of that age-old question: What is the greatest imperial stout? Those three brave and adventurous souls were KP, Hank and me. But before I get around to discussing the actual tasting, Iím going to bore you with the details of what it took to get 14 of the worldís best imperial stouts in the same place at the same time in a state that doesnít allow the sale or production of beer over 6%.
After completing a trade that left me with both Stone Imperial Stout and Alesmith Speedway Stout, I thought itíd be really cool to see how many beers of the style I could gather together and taste side-by-side.
The next day I posted a message to the forums of both Ratebeer.com and Beeradvocate.com and the Atlanta beer mailing list asking for trades to get any imperial stouts. Within a few days I had lined up trades for 14 of the best imperial stouts on earth. The complete process from original idea to having the last beer in my hands took almost a month.
On the mailing list I also offered to trade a seat at the tasting for beer to sample. This is where KP came in. His cellar was home to more imperial stouts than I had ever tasted (along with a few hundred others, or at least it seemed that way). He agreed to supply five beers for his spot at the table and later offered his home as the location.
The beers weíd gathered were:
<LI>Sam Smith Imperial Stout</LI>
<LI>Stone Imperial Stout</LI>
<LI>Nils Oscar Imperial Stout</LI>
<LI>Rogue Imperial Stout</LI>
<LI>Bellís Expedition Stout</LI>
<LI>Dogfish Head World Wide Stout</LI>
<LI>North Coast Old Rasputin</LI>
<LI>Victory Storm King</LI>
<LI>Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout</LI>
<LI>Alesmith Speedway Stout</LI>
<LI>John Harvardís Whiskey Barrel Imperial Stout</LI>
<LI>Ellezelloise Hercule Stout†</LI>
<LI>Wellington Iron Duke Imperial Stout</LI>
<LI>and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout.</LI></OL>
You wouldnít believe how good youíll feel about yourself to know that you were able to get those beers all in the same place in a state where none of them are sold or, with the exception of the Stone and maybe one or two others sold in Tennessee, even sold in a neighboring state.
After the final beers came in, a few emails sent back and forth arranged a time, a place, rules for the tasting and a menu for dinner. All that was left to do was to show up.
Out of the goodness of their hearts, KPís wife Shirley and my wife Kim agreed to serve the beer to the three of us. They picked bottles at random and poured in the kitchen so that the three of us wouldnít know what beer we were tasting. Without their help, we wouldnít have been able to do a blind tasting and bias may have slipped in and skewed the ratings.
We used 4 oz. tasting glasses for sample because of the large number of beers and the fact that I could only get one bottle of several of the beers. Leftovers were consumed after the tasting. We used a 1-5 rating scale with half steps and rated in the categories Appearance, Aroma, Taste, Mouthfeel and Overall.
While tasting, weíd discuss what we thought of each sample. I was a little worried that discussing the beers could possibly make us rate the beers more similarly than we would have otherwise, but looking at a few of the beers we apparently didnít care what the others thought. Even if it had caused a bit of a problem, it was good to talk about the beers because it often gave me insights on what the others liked and disliked, and Iíd often overlook something or have trouble putting something into words until hearing one of my co-tasters mention it. It also made the tasting a lot more enjoyable.
After everything was done and ratings finalized, Kim called out the order in which the beers were served. We had been trying to guess the beers as we tasted them. We stunk. Everyone got the Whiskey Barrel Stout. I got the Rogue correct as well. No one got more than two correct.
The tasting was also broken into two sessions of 7 beers. In between sessions we cooked potato-crusted salmon with asparagus and caramel pecan pie with ice cream for dessert while watching The Wall. It took us from about 4 p.m. to almost 11 p.m. to get through all of the samples. Spreading the tasting out over almost seven hours not only kept us all sober enough to still be able to taste the beer, but also allowed us to end up with legible notes and it minimized burnout. Even with the length of time, I was a bit relieved that there were no more beers to rate when we finished.
Burnout really was a true fear of mine. With this many beers of this kind of size (alcohol and flavor) overwhelming your senses is indeed a very strong possibility. Fortunately, it seems that this wasnít too large of a problem. The highly rated beers seem fairly evenly dispersed throughout both sessions with the number one beer being in the middle of the second session.
But enough teasing. Iím sure most of you only care to see the final results. The following is a complete list of beers in order their rankings. Their total score will be in parentheses and the average of what the three of us rated them in each category will follow.
If youíre wondering which one of the 14 beers is missing, itís the Stone Imperial Stout. The bottle we had at the tasting had somehow managed to go sour. Since it was obviously not in good health, I threw the scores out. I managed to get another bottle recently and Hank and I retasted it. Itís much better when not impersonating a lambic. My guess is that it would have probably been in the top five had the original bottle been ok. It would have been in the top five in my personal list as well, I think.
I have to say that the scores there look really low for these to be some of the best beers in the world, and if you look at how I rated these beers on the site youíll notice that theyíre much higher. This is because on the site, I rated the beers how I rate all the beer I drink, which is less to style and more of how I perceive the overall quality of the beer. At the tasting, I rated them in comparison to each other and strictly what I looked for in the style so scores were lower. From conversations with Hank and KP, it seems that they scored the beers in the same way.
The Le Coq was probably the biggest love it or hate it beer. Hank and I both rated it highly (me a 4.3, Hank a 4.2). KPís apparent dislike of it (he gave it a 2.2) drug it from being a contender for number one to towards the bottom of the pack. Actually, the odd complex vinous character of this beer did make it something that would be extremely difficult to drink much of so I would imagine this beer would have a large standard deviation even in a much larger group.
Unlike the Rogue Imperial which suffered from what pretty much everyone agreed was a fairly thin burned bitter flavor that lacked a lot of the other, richer dark malt flavors and the fruitiness of the best beers, the Wellington Iron Duke suffered from not being able to stand out from the rest. It was balanced, it was well done with no discernable flaws and it was fairly tasty. Its problem (as well as a few of the others) was that it didnít do anything to make it stand out or be better than the others.
The following is a little of what the tasting taught me about what I really like in the style:
<LI>Donít over-rely on the black patent malt. It may make a good looking beer but it does little for the flavor other than provide a thin burned bitterness. Sure this is a characteristic of the style, but it needs to be backed up by fuller flavored dark malts.</LI>
<LI>If itís an imperial, itís got to be pitch black and opaque to get top scores. A thick creamy head like the one on Rogue is nice, but you donít really expect much from an imperial stout. Most of these were weak in the head department.</LI>
<LI>Fruity is good. The best beers had a nice complex fruitiness that complemented with the rich dark malts flavors.</LI></OL>
Just as a curiosity, Iím including the each raterís top and bottom beers and a paraphrasing of their notes explaining that decision.
My favorite of the bunch was the Le Coq. The impressive complexity of this beer impressed me, although led me to believe itíd be hard to drink much off. I described it as Banana bread soaked in wine and it was an extremely dry beer. I gave it a 4.3. The bottom of my list (I hesitate to call it worst since all the beers were good) was the Wellington, again not because of a lack of quality but because of a lack of being special in some way. Probably the ones Iíd be most likely to go to for regular drinking would be the Sam Smith and the John Harvardís. The Sam has everything that an imperial should with the dark malts, good fruitiness, alcohol warmth and bite but balances everything perfectly and doesnít become too thick or heavy. I gave it a 3.8 because the same quality that made it a wonder to drink detracted from the mouthfeel and appearance since I expect to beers of the style to be thick on the tongue and pitch black and the Sam was neither compared to the others. The John Harvardís benefited heavily from the bourbon flavors. Something about the way the whiskey notes from a whiskey barrel aged stout blend with whatís already in the beer just makes my nose and tongue go crazy with floral notes, vanilla and oak.
Hank was most impressed with the Sam Smith (a 4.55 total). He seemed to be impressed by the fruitiness, and the fact that the coffee was subordinate to the chocolate since heís not really into coffee to start with. His pick for bottom of the pack was the Wellington as well for the same reasons.
KPís favorite of the bunch was the World Wide Stout with a total score of 4.1. His runt of the litter was Le Coq with a 2.2 total score.
A tasting like this is something I would encourage anyone to try. It really isnít that hard. For some of you living in parts of the world wealthier in than Georgia could even get away with a similar enterprise fairly cheaply. For me the biggest cost was the getting the beers together. Still, for the experience, every last penny was worth it and I plan on doing similar tastings, but perhaps not so ambitious, with different styles in the future.