Sunday, 3 November 2013

Imperial Stout Tasting 1.0: The First of the Newly Cold(er) Season

I greet Winter with a mix of dread at the thoughts of bitter temperatures alongside icy/snowy commutes and joy at the promise of imperial stout season.  Bold, warming, strong, dark, full-bodied, high gravity brews cut the edge off of Winter and, I believe, have become my source of life through the otherwise lifelessness of the inhospitable climate of this most painful season here in Montreal.

Yet a great sense of guilt overcomes me as we had our first zero degree celsius days this past week following our first (mostly) imperial stout tasting of the season; perhaps the cold resulting from us perversely welcoming and inviting the season in this bizarre ritual!  To the degree we are culpable, let me take this opportunity to apologize, but also to say you're welcome for us unofficially kicking off the season thereby granting official malty tasker permission to crack your cellared delights that have been awaiting these cooler times!

As always, when the gents from and I crack brews, we don't fuck around.  So, without further ado, here is the lineup (the St. Ambroise's are 2011, 2012, and 2013 vintages respectively, btw):

Hill Farmstead's Twilight of the Idols (a 7.2% ABV "Winter Porter" brewed with coffee and cinnamon and aged on vanilla beans), while not an imperial stout, suited the theme well enough and began as a warm up.  Unfortunately, this unfiltered, live beer had its remaining yeast keep working and exploded upon opening in the most intense way I have ever seen - volcanically frothing forth and losing at least half of the bottle to the table, the floor, and the coasters (not to mention my hands and, with massive foaming pools forming on the table, to my mouth in my first ever table-sip as it would have been a waste to let such pools drain elsewhere!)

Upon pouring the remainder, we had limited sips - probably about 3-4 ounces each, rather than the 6-8 anticipated.  Moreover we lost much of the carbonation, which for this style is fine for me but led to a unique tasting experience that may not be representative.  Thus, my brief notes will say the following very tentatively:

This Nietzsche inspired porter was quite dark and viscous with no remaining head after exploding half of its contents in the opening geyser, though the nose wafted a some coffee and roast malt notes with a hint of something metallic.  The taste was of dry, with just a trace of vanilla.  It had a decent roasty linger, alongside a creamy feel without much effervescence (though who knows if that's to be expected!).  It was a bit boozy on the palate - in fact the booziest beer of the night despite being the lowest ABV - which I found odd and it may also be due to the explosion.  I won't rate this beer in this context as doing so would be unfair, but as with all things Hill Farmstead, it certainly intrigued enough to inspire a future second take if I get the opportunity!

Turning to the true style of the night, Imperial Stouts, we then enjoyed the Alesmith Speedway Stout (12% ABV Coffee Imperial Stout), pictured below.  This was brought to me from California by a colleague this summer (a thousand thank-yous, again, Alberto!) and looked as magnificent as imagined, building the anticipation:

See?  A nice black body capped by a thick tan head with decent staying power, despite its high gravity. Though the nose is quite nice, it's a bit milder than in many of my favourite imperial stouts.  It presents muted-but-pleasant dark chocolate bitter-sweetness with just a faint hint of alcohol and slight notes of cherry.  The taste is predominantly of bitter-sweet dark chocolate/cocoa without much coffee that is rather muted but presents mostly in a dry, well-roasted finish.  This beer is not sweet, but it has sweet elements tempered by its roasty-dry finish.  In ways, it's more balanced than I'd like in an imperial stout though I greatly admire its balanced complexity and enjoy drinking it immensely!  It was just slightly warm to the tongue, but nicely warming in the chest (as one would expect of a 12% beer) but there is no way you'd estimate its well-hidden alcohol content.  It's rich on the palate, while moderately creamy with only light carbonation in a medium body.  Though in ways this hits neither the nose, the taste imbalance, the coffee content, nor quite the body I generally seek in this style, it starts tasty and grows in pleasure with each subsequent sip!  It differs from my expectations, but is nonetheless a well-brewed marvel, a true pleasure to imbibe and a reminder of all that beer can be!  Grade: A

I have no qualms about professing my profound love of McAuslan's annual St. Ambroise Bourbon-Barrel Aged Stout ImpĂ©riale Russe (9.2% ABV).  For my own tastes this, in many ways, defines the style for me personally and stands up to many of the more highly praised American competitors.  And it ages magnificently.

Thus, we pulled forth a cellared 2011, 2012, and the brand new 2013 release.  We had three glasses in front of us at once so as to be able to go back and forth between them.

Having previously had two vintages of this gem in juxtaposition, I knew that despite its fresh delights, its aged wonders simply improved the near perfection, thus I began with the 2013.  This thick, black, full-bodied, viscous delight shows a reddish-tinged mocha head of beauty and expression.  As recalled, that expressed nose is just lightly bourbon-esque with traces of vanilla and wood, but also a deeply roasted malt with some fresh earthy and piney hops that fades over time.  Don't get me wrong, it is malt-forward and yet not sweetly aromatic in more than a slight way, tempered by the hops and the roasty bitterness evoked and anticipated.  Tastewise, this beer is of dry unsweetened cocoa up front with an espresso-like dry finish of moderate length, but maximal substance.  The older (both years) versions offer increased wood and vanilla bourbon notes making me wonder if they were aged longer/in fresher barrels or if these notes express more over time.  Regardless, as great as this beer is fresh, it just gets better!  Thus, I never open too many fresh!

The feel is creamy and though I love the Speedway (which isn't sweet) it contrasts more sweetly in juxtaposition to this delight.  The 2012 wafts the most vanilla-forward nose and rounds out/smooths out the flavour from its sharp dryness, while the 2011 has the woodiest notes and the smoothest/most rounded out subtlety and complexity of the three.  In reverse chronological order, this is a tasting that starts amazingly and just gets better!  2013 Grade: A; 2012 Grade: A+; 2011 Grade: A+

Unlike the first two beers that are much more difficult to procure (at least in Eastern Canada), this last treat can be more easily procured.  Costly, at $6 per bottle, this beer is available wherever better beers are sold in Quebec and at the LCBO in Ontario.  Buy a few, store them upright in a cool, dark place, and crack them next year or the year after to experience a true delight!  Or better yet, do it each year and start your own vertical tasting tradition!  Stay tuned for next years' 4-year vertical update!

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