Winter warmers tend to be of the loosely termed “wassail” variety, where strong, malty ales are mixed with a variety of holiday spices, such as cinammon, nutmeg, ginger, and orange peel. In moderation, they are like those other rich, seasonal delicacies, eggnog, and Gluehwein, whose emphatic charms are swiftly lost on me. On the other hand, strong stouts, particularly of the Russian Imperial variety, are extremely versatile, pairing perfectly with heartier winter fare like braised meats, stews, and bisques. They’re practically a meal unto themselves, with heaping amounts of roasted malts contributing a chewy texture and unrivaled savoriness.
After the surprising results of the blind pumpkin beer tasting Gary Dzen and I undertook in the fall, I thought it would be interesting to try the same experiment with American stouts, comparing local examples with readily available, highly rated (none scored lower than a 95 on Ratebeer.com) national ones. I enlisted the help of my colleague Jon Palmer and our beer savvy friend Jeff Soyk as we blind tasted 15 stouts with a minimum 6.5 percent ABV.
Essentially, milk stouts, porters, and dry Irish stouts like Guinness were left off the table to focus on more robust varieties. Soaring levels of alcohol played a factor in the number of samples within the tasting and deserving brands, such as Smuttynose (their Imperial Stout isn’t released until January), and Victory (I looked for Storm King at five good beer stores to no avail) were substituted for others.
We scored each beer on a ten point scale and averaged the scores to create our rankings. Once again, when the brown paper bags were discarded, some unexpected labels rose to the forefront, while others that impressed in the past fell well below expectations. Oh, and even with the inclusion of exemplary gold medal-winning stouts like Great Divide’s Yeti, an unheralded local beer took the top spot.