Since it’s now much colder outside my window than it is in my freezer, it’s probably a good time to talk about Imperial Stouts. There’s something seasonally dualistic about the combination of snow and Imperial Stout, if only in terms of greyscale. There’s a warming character to them and a percentage of alcohol that is perfect for long snowbound days when you weren’t really going to make it further than the corner without a 4×4.
The first example here is Muskoka’s Winter Beard, which is a double chocolate cranberry stout. There are two varieties out there at the moment. There’s a 2012 vintage, which seems to be on shelves at the LCBO and a 2013 fresh vintage, which is available across several provinces. Apparently you can get it in Newfoundland, which tells you something about Muskoka’s intent regarding the rest of the country. I like the fact that the larger regional breweries are spreading out a little.
I find myself wondering whether the Winter Beard 2012 vintage was produced in excess last year against the possibility of scheduling problems with the brewery move this year. It’s possible they’re simply trying to introduce the concept of vertical tastings into Ontario in a way that’s slightly more formalized than it is now. Either way, you’ve got to admire the vision. I think it’s the latter because when I spoke with the brewery last year, they said I should put a bottle away for a year. I intended to, certainly, but you know how it is when you find yourself shorthanded for host gifts during the Christmas season.
The packaging is a little ostentatious, with a silver embossed visage on a black background. I assume this is Mad Tom’s cousin, Hirsute Nicholas. It makes proud mention of its standing on Ratebeer. It is apparently a 94 and was voted Best New December Beer Release. I assume that must have been 2011, which I think would have been the first year it was brewed.
Interestingly, when it’s quite fresh Winter Beard is a little bit confused. There is chocolate and there are cranberries, but you get other elements as well. There’s the roast and slight bitterness that comes with the territory. It is very pleasant, but it doesn’t really gel. After a year of age, all of the elements come together and Winter Beard presents exactly as I imagine it was meant to in the mind of the brewer. The general impression that I came away with was a dark chocolate truffle with a tartly sour cranberry gelee in the center. It does exactly what it says it ought to do, and in a sense is a really fine example of prescriptivist design. The only issue is that if you’re not interested in that description, you’re going to hate it.
On a scale from Don Johnson’s immaculate stubble to Greg Koch in his millionaire hobo period, I give it two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren.
Sometimes you’re better off not aiming for something quite so specific.
Case in point: the latest member of the Amsterdam Adventure Brews series is Barrel Aged Double Tempest.
Barrel Aged Double Tempest is a courageous venture on the part of the brewery into the superheavyweight category of Imperial Stouts. I’m going to go ahead and call that anything over 10% alcohol. They’re the ones that make up the vast majority of top rated beers in the world. It’s your Bourbon County, Dark Lord, Hunahpu, Speedway, Expedition, Abyss kinda stuff. The stuff that requires you to stand in line and make your obeisance. You need a certain amount of brass to even attempt the category because these are the beers that people are going to compare your stuff with.
Running down the list of important details, I can tell you that it’s 14% alcohol and that it is apparently 115 IBUs (which would be about the most possible, but ought frankly to disappear into 14%.) It is aged in Four Roses Bourbon Barrels and has been for nine months. I don’t know Bourbon, but I can tell you that Four Roses won American Whiskey of the Year yesterday from Whiskey Advocate. Also, Philip Marlowe drinks it in The High Window. I assume Marlowe knows what he’s doing. Point is, this is exactly ten months along.
I’ve noticed that really good beer does one of two things and it depends a little on the style. It will either convey the same sensory information on every sip, following the same progression of flavour and experience every time, or it will change every time you taste it revealing permutations of the various elements involved.
In the case of Barrel Aged Double Tempest, it’s the latter category. It pours black as a charred stave and has a mocha head that recedes quickly but not completely. You get the alcohol on the aroma, but at 14% that’s practically an inevitability. It’s a good thing given the contribution of the bourbon. There’s a suffusion of molasses and concentrated dark chocolate syrup. Oddly enough, the roast character of the malt emerges about a foot from the glass, which is a neat trick.
I got different permutations as it warmed. On one sip the rye came through in a burst at the back of the palate and then faded into the bourbon; a nice conceptual contrast between Canadian whiskey and Bourbon. On another sip, it was the small ash of barrel char wrapped in crystalline vanilla sugar. There was one where it the mouth coating effect resulted in something akin to the cakey flour of a dark chocolate brownie. As you drink it, if you inhale deeply enough, you can actually feel the alcohol on the exhale. Amazingly, the carbonation hadn’t disappeared even after an hour and a half.
Now, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to try a number of the superheavyweight Imperial Stouts; some of them fairly recently. I think that this could hang with them. I don’t think it’s as polished as some of them, but I’m not sure that polish is what I’m looking for. There are just enough rough edges here that it forces you to engage. It will be interesting to see if it retains its complexity with another year of age on it.
Bloody well done.