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.
15. Cisco Brewers Island Reserve
If you read the results of the 2013 pumpkin beer tasting, you know that Cisco surprised everyone with its Pumple Drumkin, which placed third out of 16 selections. With that in mind, I had high hopes for their Russian Imperial Stout, which hails from their small-batch Island Reserve series. But this was easily the biggest disappointment of tasting with a baffling sourness that belied its inky color and 13 percent ABV. Even more problematic was the off-putting tropical fruit notes that tasted of tinned pineapple, masking the better cocoa aromas.
Average Score: 4
14. Baxter Phantom Punch
This Maine brewery has truly embraced going green with photodegradable six-pack rings, 100 percent of its electrical usage powered by wind turbines, and a full line of beers packaged in aluminum (the first to do so in New England). Baxter’s Stowaway is a pleasantly hoppy India Pale Ale, and its winter stout, Phantom Punch is usually a welcome seasonal offering with its additions of roasted, organic cocoa nibs and real vanilla beans. But this year, Baxter really fell flat as its stout, named in honor of 1965 Ali/Liston heavyweight championship fought in Lewiston, felt like the missed punch that sent Sonny Liston spiraling to the canvas. This medium-bodied ale drank like a poorly constructed Rauchbier with one-dimensional notes of smoke, tar, and more smoke. Somewhere in the background was a pleasant trace of stewed cherries, but it proved as elusive as the finish, which all but evaporated upon hitting your tongue.
Average Score: 4.1
13. The Tap Joshua Norton
When The Tap Brewpub and Haverhill Brewery joined under the unifying moniker of The Tap Brewing Co. in 2012, they took advantage of the rebranding with sleek new packaging and a focus on better beer. I love the stripped-down labels and The Tap’s commitment to producing quality bombers (particularly their Sassy Rabbit rye ale) at low retail prices. Unfortunately, their Joshua Norton was practically lifeless. When your label boldy claims: “Wow now; Better in a Year’’ beneath a pair of swashbuckling cutlasses, you expect an elixir hearty enough to mature with age. But here the nose was largely muted except for a feint impression of anise and pine resin, which we practically had to wring from the snifter .
Average Score: 5.43
12. Weyerbacher Old Heathen
In pairing down the selections for our winter blind-tasting, I decided to limit the field to one Pennsylvania brewery, choosing Weyerbacher over other worthy offerings such as Victory’s Storm King and Troegs’ JavaHead Stout. Boy, that was a mistake. As the first beer sampled, Old Heathen proved a poor start to the evening, with a wafer-thin mouthfeel that felt as oxidized as an old 2-liter of soda that’s been rattling around in the back of the fridge. The nose offered chocolatey aromas, but the kind of cheap, bittersweet milk chocolate that blankets neglected Halloween candy. There was also some dark cherry fruit, but combined with alcohol burn at the back of the palate, it had the unpleasant effect of children’s cough syrup.
Average Score: 5.5
11. Oskar Blues Ten Fidy
Oskar Blues, the craft can luminary from tiny Lyons, Colo., is creating some of the best extreme beer anywhere with its decadent Imperial red, G’Knight ,and its insanely hoppy Double IPA, Gubna. Their Imperial Stout, Ten Fidy, falls in that same cult category with websites tracking its release like the McRib enthusiasts who travel the country in search of their favorite transient pressed-pork sandwich. Ten Fidy has a perfect score on Ratebeer.com and has won two gold medals at the World Beer Championships, but I have to wonder if Oskar Blues has jeopardized quality as it has continued to expand distribution (now up to 32 states). Ten Fidy surprised all of us with an overwhelming aroma of Granny Smith apple that made it seem more like Calvados than the viscous, roasted, molasses-rich stout I’ve sampled in the past. That black, motor oil complexion was intact, but gone were the richness of coffee and cocoa. As a big fan of the beer, I even opened the rest of the cans in the four-pack after the blind part of the tasting, hoping that it was an anomaly. Sadly, they all suffered from that same green apple bite and we were forced to score it in the bottom half of our rankings.
Average Score: 6.7
10. Wormtown Sweet Tats
Ben Roesch at Worcester’s Wormtown Brewery just seems to be getting better and better at his craft, recently releasing gems like his Hopulence double IPA and a canned version of his Be Hoppy IPA (a nice stand-in for the Heady Topper-deprived). But his newest oatmeal stout, brewed with Acoustic Java coffee, cocoa nibs, and vanilla beans was jarringly sweet. The natural bitterness of the coffee and the heady aromas of Baker’s chocolate weren’t enough to balance out the sweeping saccharine quality. Sweet Tats had a nice weight on the palate and a pleasantly dry finish, but off odors of green pepper and the aformentioned sugariness killed our overall enjoyment of Wormtown’s latest.
Average score: 6.8
9. Pretty Things Barbayaga
Pretty Things’s Barbayaga marked a distinct transition in the tasting as parity became the norm and finding any noticeable faults proved difficult. Described by brewers Dann and Martha paquette as “an export-strength woodland stout,’’ Barbayaga is made more in the vein of Belgian and English stouts rather than the hedonistic American variety. Even the choice of Bramling Cross hops, typically found in British ESBs, is an interesting decision that makes me think balance was more the objective than power, something the Paquette’s easily achieved. The notes of chocolate-covered strawberries, caramel, and spice were seamlessly integrated. The other tasters were bothered by the lingering sweetness of the finish, but I thought it was a nice touch paired with the roasted smokiness of the malt.
Average Score: 7
8. Hoppin’ Frog Barrel Aged B.O.R.I.S.
Hoppin’ Frog out of Akron, Ohio, makes bold, tooth-achingly rich beers, none more so than B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal Imperial Stout aged in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels. This was the only barrel-aged offering in the tasting, so strong aromas of vanilla and oak were a bit of a giveaway, but there was also impressive notes of licorice, prunes, cola, and toffee. This labor-intensive beer was the most expensive of the evening (around $18 for a 22-ounce bomber), but it’s obviously a labor of love that benefits from the residual whiskey. Overall, Hoppin’ Frog’s barrel aged stout is a bold offering that makes you you stand up and take notice, with a cognac-like structure that will almost certainly get better and more complex with age.
Average Score: 7.3
7. Great Divide Yeti
Considering the level of superb competition within the state (Avery, Left Hand, New Belgium, etc.), being named Ratebeer.com’s 2013 Top Brewer in Colorado resonates with even more gravitas. Brewing exciting, cutting-edge beer since 1994, Brian Dunn and his staff have racked up countless awards, most notably for their Yeti imperial stout and its various incarnations infused with locally roasted espresso beans, cocoa nibs, and rolled oats. This was easily the hoppiest stout of the tasting, with grapefruit and assertive pine resin aromas comingling with the more predictable notes of coffee, chocolate, and graham cracker. With each sip I found myself going back to images of a gooey, fudge brownie after a swig of craft IPA. And believe me, that’s a good thing.
Average Score: 8
6. Pretty Thing Barbapapa
Pretty Things released its newest stout only weeks ago, so I was ecstatic to be able to include this in our review. All of the tasters gave this one high scores as we gravitated toward its chewy mouthfeel brimming with dark chocolate, hazelnut, and something more akin to cold-brewed coffee syrup. In many ways, this is the exact opposite of its brethren, Barbayaga, as it incorporates only American Chinook hops and utilizes nine types of malt. Barabapa is also much heftier when it comes to alcohol, topping out at 12 percent ABV. At that level, a boozy nose is inevitable, but with the warming dark fruit notes, I was reminded of silky Italian Amarone.
Average Score: 8.1
5. Sierra Nevada Narwhal
After trying Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal, Jon Palmer blurted out, “this tastes like those caramel hard candies that all grandparents have in a glass dish.’’ Of course, he was referencing Werther’s Originals, those buttery discs so often found in the cardigans of the Greatest Generation. Sierra Nevada’s latest addition to their High Altitude Series proved to be multifaceted though as it warmed to reveal notes of red plum, tobacco, milk chocolate, and an expertly integrated level of alcohol. Challenger hops lend that pervasive caramel nose, but the addition of Magnum hops, ubiquitous to the beers of Sierra Nevada, put this over the top. Think Sierra’s classic Pale Ale laquered in a coat of Kahlua.
Average Score: 8.4
4. Maine Beer Co. Mean Old Tom
Another craft stout from Maine brewed with organic vanilla beans. Far different results. This was the final beer in the tasting and it felt like dessert at the end of a fine meal. Mean Old Tom had an alluringly creamy texture that, combined with the fresh vanilla, was like diving into a rich, chocolate milkshake. It seems that Maine Beer Co. can do no wrong, with flawless, exciting beers in just about every style. Until I tried Zoe, I didn’t think it was possible to brew an intriguing amber. In the growing black IPA category, their Weez is the best I’ve tried to date. And up against some of the best strong stouts in the world, Mean Old Tom came damn close to coming out on top.
Average Score: 8.5
3. North Coast Old Rasputin
Like Great Divide’s Yeti, this California stalwart was immensly hoppy, but North Coast’s Old Rasputin had far more complexity. The words “cozy’’ and “comforting’’ were thrown around a lot to describe the layers of flowery chamomile, roasted malt, grapefruit, raisins, and chocolate. Old Rasputin has a lush, velvety texture that finishes dry, leaving you yearning for more. A stout could never be described as sessionable, but it was certainly the most “drinkable.’’ Its apparent booziness doesn’t bludgeon you with its presence, and far from being just a special occasion extravagance, we all agreed, Old Rasputin is a beer you can enjoy in almost any season, especially at the price point.
Average Score: 8.7
2. Clown Shoes Vampire Slayer
Contract brewers oftentimes get a bad rap from craft beer purists. Ipswich’s Clown Shoes falls into this somewhat maligned category as the company doesn’t actually own its own brick and mortar brewery. Instead, it employs the resources and services of Mercury Brewing Co., which help produce their lineup of controversial beers, such as Muffin Top (a Belgian-style tripel IPA) and Tramp Stamp (Belgian IPA). I admit, I typically shy away from Clown Shoes because its ostentatious labels seem to imply a fundamental lack of refinement. Boy, were we surprised when we discarded the brown paper sacks to reveal, not one, but two Clown Shoes selections at the top. Their Vampire Slayer smoked imperial stout seems like another louche concept — brewed as it is with mail-order holy water — but with hints of hickory, toasted marshmallow, marzipan, and dark chocolate, it’s like liquid s’mores. Vampire Slayer’s lofty ranking might have been a surprise, but it was a much welcome one.
Average Score: 9.1
1. Clown Shoes Blaecorn Unidragon
Just barely edging out its Clown Shoes brethren, the Blaecorn Unidragon was a unanimous selection for top stout. We were all wowed by its complexity as I picked out opulent tawny port notes, earthy hops, and a warming roundness that had us going back to it over and over throughout the course of the evening. The malt to hop ratio worked perfectly in unison, targeting all of the major taste receptors. There were sweet brown sugar notes, the sourness of almost-ripe blackberries, the bitterness of dark-roasted espresso beans, and even the umami pleasures of freshly foraged mushrooms. After some minor letdowns early in the tasting, Jon and I looked at each other with concern. “I want one of these to just blow me away,’’ I confided to him. Blaecorn Unidragon was that wonderful, revelatory beer.
Average Score: 9.2