In 2006, almost 10 years after Stone Brewing Co. released the first batch of Stone Smoked Porter, Laura Ulrich, one of the company's brewers, had an idea to make it better. Ulrich added whole Madagascar vanilla beans to a small batch of the finished brew, and a new beer was born. After that, Ulrich decided to combine the sweet vanilla into the brewing process of the smoky classic.
"It was an instant hit, as the resulting flavor combinations -- rich vanilla melding with the malty, chocolatey, coffee-like characteristics of the beer --were practically made for each other," Stone says in a press release.
Originally created as a limited, growler-only brew available at special events, the vanilla version of the beer from the Escondido, California brewery has been released in bottles since 2012. I recently grabbed a bottle and gave it a test drive.
The beer pours dark brown with a full finger of dirty, frothy head. I stick my nose near the glass and get the smell of faint sauna, without the sweaty occupants, but also coffee beans and vanilla.
When done right, the smoked porter style is an exercise in restraint. At 5.9 percent alcohol by volume Stone's beer is not strongly alcoholic, nor is it too smoky. It's a hint of smoke that dries out the brew and keeps it from being too sweet. That's even more important with the addition of sweet vanilla beans.
There's a really nice smoke-vanilla interplay with this beer, which does a great job of balancing the two disparate ingredients. My one wish is that it had a little more bite. That's something you don't say often about a Stone beer. This one has 53 IBUs (international bitterness units), which is a lot for a porter, but I wished the finish were crisper. Still, for a beer with so much going on I found it to be highly enjoyable.
Stone Smoked Porter with vanilla bean is distributed in 22-ounce bottles all over New England.