Imperial stouts don’t lack for company on Ratebeer’s Top 50, which speaks volumes about the purely hedonistic popularity of beers in this grand style. Take a beer laced with some of the richest, most popular flavors—like coffee and chocolate—and you’ve got a recipe for enjoyment. After some Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) raters had taken on saison in its first focused tasting, it was an obvious choice that our next tasting would bring together the best imperial stouts we could find (not regularly available for sale in Texas).
There is something beautiful in a focused tasting. I hadn’t done many focused tastings before, but I would highly recommend that all raters try one. You don’t have to have the very best representatives of the style, though it is useful to have at least a couple of premier examples. A couple of things seem to happen. First, of course, having a dozen examples of a beer provokes immediate thoughts about the commonalities and discontinuities of a style: what’s “normal” and what’s new or innovative about particular beers. Second, I think positively, it encourages you to use a wider spectrum of rating. If you have a mediocre imperial stout up against a milder beer, you might be so jolted by the aromas, flavors, and alcohol that you can be forgiven for giving it a high rating. In a focused tasting, however, putting beers of a style up against one another sometimes exposes the impostors from the champions, with the result being that your ratings are less accepting.
We met at Bu11zeye’s palatial estate in the sprawling reaches of Frisco, Texas. Unfortunately, despite prior confirmations by two DFW mainstays—Tchrome and Legion242—they were unable to make it. Oh well, more for us: Lumpy, Kevin, Bu11zeye and myself.
We began with a winner, a growler of Happy Jack Black from the Bitter End in Austin. Escaping just a week before their recent fire, it was procured by Lumpy and kept in excellent condition (on ice) for a week. They know how to seal a growler, it seems, and it poured a beautiful lace head and a classically dark appearance. The aroma was soft and gentle, vanilla and bourbon. Going down the hatch to start the evening, we wondered whether it would be bettered. But the big debate is whether this is aged in a whisky barrel. I had mistakenly thought that the “Jack” referred to its time in a Jack Daniel’s cask, but this wasn’t that beast, just the base for the more famous beer. Bu11zeye’s wife, who had been given a glass, wondered through the kitchen, smiling, and added the definitive word: “I like it”. It’s obvious, this is good. As it warms, the smoothness is only more apparent, as are some added dimension to the flavor, including a nice grape note.
Before I could even get my notes down, Markus had delved into the one non-Imperial stouts of the evening, Bitter End’s Sledgehammer Stout, a dry stout. Still very black, but without the passion in the head, I picked up a few celery notes with the roasts. Following a few complaints around the table about the Bitter End food--too expensive, too foo-fooey Bistro--we turned back to Lumpy’s reflection that this beer is “everything Guinness should have and could have been”. I was distracted; I wanted to go back to my Happy Jack’s. A husky flavor, suggestive of cabbage root from south of Mongolia, as well as balsa wood soaking in the Mediterranean but that has been moved to the Dead Sea after a thorough drying period…. oh wait, as I was writing Lumpy was taking the piss (that’s an English expression for being sarcastic, leading me on). It wasn’t cabbage root from Mongolia. But there is a very dry mouthfeel, in truth, and the chocolate is substantial, though it doesn’t approach the Happy Jack’s.
Bu11zeye had made a pot of chilli. He knows how to make chilli. In fact, just next to the kitchen sits a closet containing his collection of hot sauces…around 450 different hot sauces, last time he counted, all lovingly displayed. This chilli had some burn, wait…lots of burn…but it actually worked rather well with the Sledgehammer, while his wife’s guacamole pushed my buttons as well. Now, this is a point that might be subject to some criticism: can you have much food, especially spicy food, at a proper tasting? For one, it depends on what you’re drinking. Don’t try this with delicate beers. But even beyond that, I am in the “realism” camp. It’s a fact of life: people eat food with beer. You have to give beer a realistic setting to prove their mettle. I don’t think I *ever* drink imperial stouts on an empty stomach, so I wasn’t going to start this night. And, all told, I think the beers actually benefited from the experience.
But who knows? Maybe we should have been concerned when Bu11zeye insisted that there were green peppers in his Bert Grant’s Imperial Stout…. We tucked into Bert, and our experience wasn’t positive. Kevin was the most dismissive: “there’s a lot going on but nothing I appreciate or enjoy”, but Lumpy was enthusiastic about the figs and prunes in the aroma. Lumpy and Kevin thought it dusty. As I drank it, I began instinctively to make faces, which generated numerous comments from around the table that I looked as if either I was about to vomit or my child had done something very bad. Kevin thought it was a black licorice. I thought it was somewhat lactic. “I’ll tell you what it isn’t,” said Lumpy: “good.”
We had known from reputation that the Bert Grant’s Imperial Stout wasn’t going to be the highlight. We knew the next beer very well might be: a Dogfish Head World Wide Stout (23%). A few of us had rated it before, but we each took our share while Kevin, who hadn’t, enjoyed about half of the bottle. I think it was lovely. Obviously a controversial element is the alcohol--positively you can look at it as helping to drive some vanilla and fruit up your nose; negatively it is oppressive, burning your nose. It is just so sweet--maple syrup, the dark rich good stuff, not the watered down IHOP pitchers. So smooth, so sweet, the great goodness of life, all wrapped up into one beer. We sat and raved. It is just so good. All of us say it is at least 4.4 or better (Bu11zeye being the 4.4, Lumpy giving it at least 4.5, me at 4.6 and Kevin thinking about topping out at 4.9).
A hard act to follow, but follow it we did, with a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. It poured just like a World Wide Stout, with virtually no head, though slightly lighter in color. We began to have a brain wave, because Bu11zeye recognized toasted marshmallow in it, then I got toasted caramel, and Lumpy got some graham crackers. Kevin finally chimed in: with all of the chocolate, it’s a liquid s’more! It’s all there, it’s like a night around the Boy Scout campfire, enjoying flavors that all work together. Definitely above 4.0 for all of us, though Bu11zeye was raving beyond the rest of us.
Our next up, the Dark Horse Imperial Stout (MI) was an unknown quantity. Funny label, it says “750 ml” on a 12 oz. bottle. Very curious. We later received one explanation from a rater, who said that this was their fifth beer in the series, and so they labelled it “750 ml” because that equals a “fifth” of alcohol…. I don’t buy it. That’s a sophomore story made up to cover someone’s mistake in the purchasing department. Oh well, don’t judge it by its label. It pours more like motor oil than any beer we’d had so far. It needed a very vigorous swirl to get it to open up, but when it did we found much to like. To Bu11zeye, it had some Easter marshmallow “peeps”, while to me it smelled like walking into an Indian buffet restaurant. But in a way it is much less deep. Kevin began to echo that theme, complaining that there aren’t the roasted and coffee edges that you might expect in an Impy. Lumpy disagreed on the roast and smoke. Neverthless, we agreed that the flavor profile is much simpler. By consensus, not bad, and not “stop the presses”, simply enjoyable.
An Arcadia Imperial Stout hit our glasses with a modicum of head in everybody’s glass, except for Kevin’s pour—a lesson to all those who factor the head into the rating, that the glass and the pour matter a great deal. Bubblegum, peppermint, and citrus rang out, curiously, from our glasses before we head into the flavor. “It’s good,” says Lumpy. “I don’t think so,” I replied. And thus the controversy began. Grape and cola, possibly some apple (to Bu11zeye). This was sort of a transition beer….it just got us between a couple of other beers, and our conversation (in a reflection of the beer, perhaps) brought us elsewhere.
The next beer had a different dimension: Boundary Bay Imperial Oatmeal Stout. I was happy to make this a contribution from a bunch of beers brought back from Seattle by a friend. It had a nice, bountiful, irregular head. As we slowed down for a moment to savor our next sample, our comments about turned to the kind of chewing gum you get in baseball cards, though Kevin tried to throw us for a loop by arguing that there was mango (or other sweet fruit) in there. There was something odd, faint but there. We worked on it, throwing around ideas, laughing at some of the suggestions, but never being fully happy with any of the descriptors.
Before we get into the next beer, we had a discussion about Bu11zeye’s Bath and Body Works “Aromatics: Eucaplyptus and Spearmint” hand wash that he has in the bathroom. It’s amazing, all of us agreed, with an aroma just so fresh and enjoyable. We were enjoying our beers, so our tongues were free, and as might happen at your tastings, our discussion naturally turned to the question of personal lubricants. I probably don’t need to explain what lead us down this conversational path, but Lumpy proved to be a storehouse of knowledge, as he offered some good input on the Astroglide, but even more, the KY 2-in-1 warming massage oil/lubricant. The laughter is uneasy yet intense. Ah, beer tastings are good when among friends. If all of your tastings are spent just talking about the most recent beer, then you’re doing something wrong.
There were more good beers to come, and up next was the Fish Tale Poseidon, Batch No. 5, the first batch that wasn’t barrel aged. In a way, this was the classic imperial stout--the net sum of all imperial stouts. Chocolatey, roasted, rich, smooth, black…everything. Lumpy thought it was the “hottest” of the night--not alcohol necessarily, but warming like Tequila. Charred yet warming. It “doesn’t blow me away,” says Bu11zeye, but there is no discomfort in our enjoyment of it. Kevin finds a peanut quality in it. Funny beer, this. We’re all ready to anoint this one a great beer, yet we all found reservations somewhere.
We stayed in the great Northwest for the next beer, Dick’s Imperial Stout. Overall we’ve found a lack of head in many Imperial Stouts, though with aggressive swirls we can usually produce one. Not that it matters, right? Our bigger comment here surrounded the hops. Most imperial stouts don’t lend themselves to conversations about hops—though the influence of hops can be very very important—but with this one our thoughts turns toward the bitterness, even the astringency that took over. It wasn’t what we expected tonight. It was a bad finish for at least two of us, though Lumpy was rather pleased. Kevin and Bu11zeye were overall negative, and as we swirled the remnants in our glasses, we pondered what was possibly the most divisive beer of the evening.
We were working our way through the refrigerator, but we still had more, including Hale’s Pikop Andropov’s Imperial Stout. (Incidentally, we tried to take each beer out of the refrigerator a bit ahead of its opening so that it warmed a little.) I completely had missed the joke in the beer name here. There is a taxi on the label, and say the name with a Russian accent and you have “Pick Up and Drop Off”. I still don’t get the joke—why is this so funny?—but this article isn’t about my lack of a sense of humor. The head is intensely caramel in color, and it is perhaps the second most oily of the night. Apple and grape led the aroma, and all of us agreed we were tasting a very sour beer--sour up front, sour in the finish, very much a let-down. Kevin thought it might have been an infection. He even said he was ready to give it the finger if he saw it again the beer store. Really, Kevin? But admittedly it has a problem. Lumpy brought out his used-before joke of “more infected than a Thai cat house.” Oh, enough, please, enough.
The last up for the evening would be a Weyerbacher Old Heathen, just for fun. It turned out to have quite a bit of life in the bottle: after Kevin popped it open, the head built in the bottle until it required a towel on the floor. There’s a cough medicine aroma to it, I thought, but plenty of grape and sympathetic port-like flavors. Lumpy and Kevin thought it was either “above mediocre” or “mediocre”, while I thought it was “above average”. Perhaps we were just getting a bit jaded, a bit past our prime, but even so it was tough to find agreement on it.
Conclusions? Once again I will trumpet the value of a focused tasting. All of us thought we knew imperial stouts, but we definitely gained more perspective as a result of having approached the style in this way. Some of it is obvious: they’re dark and yummy; their appearances are all very similar, etc. But the spectrums of sweetness and flavors were wider than we had assumed, not to mention the variance between the oily and the somewhat thinner examples. Even the ones that were below average were quite likable in their own ways. For all of their wider reputation as high-alcohol beers, that aspect seemed rather beside the point. Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout, at a mind-bending 23%, bears notable marks of alcohol, but to focus on ABV in the world of beers seems so quaint, so-2002. What’s king here is not what it does to your body but what it does to your imagination, for the aromas and flavors can carry you around the world, from Switzerland (chocolate) to Columbia (coffee) to Portugal (port) and beyond. And I, for one, will not complain that imperial stouts populate a significant chunk of the Ratebeer Top50: why apologize for beers that we love to drink?