After a winter in which much of America was oppressed by the Polar Vortex, it seems we may finally be escaping its clutches. But if there’s one positive to all the cold weather, it’s beer. See, just like cold temperatures cue our palates to crave rich, hearty foods to warm us up, we drinkers find ourselves craving beers with richer flavors and textures. Which means winter is a fine time to dive into the cathartic depths of stouts and porters.
Stouts and porters are simply beers brewed with dark malts to produce a darker beer. What’s the difference? Stouts are brewed with roasted malts and are intended to have a thicker and darker appearance and color, while porters are brewed with naturally black malts to achieve a thinner and lighter style. Of course, these are just general guidelines, which brewers often disregard. Like any great artisans, a brewer’s intention is what truly defines a beer style.
That’s enough school though; let’s get to the actual beer. Here are some of the highlights of the winter season from my personal cellar:
Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
Aged in oak bourbon barrels before bottling, the Bourbon County Stout (black label) packs a bold flavor with intense notes of chocolate and vanilla. The oaky bourbon character is perfectly imparted into the beer, giving it a smooth finish. But sip slowly: this beer sits at a cool 14% ABV.
The other variant pictured (the red label) is the Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout brewed with Intelligentsia coffee from Austin, TX. All too often, coffee overwhelms other flavors in a coffee stout, but this one has achieved a solid balance of flavors. More than 2,000 pounds of coffee was roasted for this year’s batch, but it still commands notes of vanilla, almonds and chocolate without succumbing to coffee overkill.
Bell’s Expedition Stout
Bell’s Expedition Stout was one of the forerunners of Russian imperial stouts in the US. This is a dark, rich stout that unleashes flavors of coffee, dark fruits, and chocolate, while maintaining a refreshingly hoppy nose. This is a superior stout, and it’s built to age with an unlimited cellaring time. Certain beer geeks are still opening bottles they’ve kept cellared since the mid-90s.
Prairie is relatively new to the craft beer boom, but they are reshaping the barrel aged beer scene. This is one damn good stout. Prairie Noir has an intense cacao nib nose with a silky smooth body. It’s like a chunk of dark chocolate fell inside a bourbon barrel, and then you stuck your face inside that barrel. Outside the chocolate notes you’ll also find marshmallows, brown sugar, baked cookies and oak. The wax seal on these bottles suggests that aging Prairie Noir may be a good idea. I plan on finding out.
Brooklyn Black Ops
The Black Ops stout is that beer you don’t tell anyone about for fear your local store will run out. But if you did, you’d probably say that it’s a stout aged in bourbon barrels for at least four months, and it’s then bottle conditioned with champagne yeast to carbonate the beer over time. Despite being bottled flat, Black Ops develops a bubbly carbonation from that champagne yeast. It also develops tones of vanilla and chocolate from the barrel aging. The glass bottle is hand blown and the beer itself is built to age in the bottle for a few years.
This beer is one you want to try every year, despite how difficult it is to find. The 2013 Reserve shows impressive depth. There’s the vanilla bean, the licorice and the molasses, but what’s most prominent in this year’s Abyss is the coffee flavor, which is imparted through roasting malt. As if that weren’t enough, this imperial stout is aged in three different barrels: Kentucky Bourbon barrels, brand new oak barrels, and ex-wine casks. There’s a lot going on here, but somehow the brewers managed to achieve an impeccable flavor balance from nose to finish.
Boulevard Imperial Stout
I’m a fan of Boulevard’s Smokestack series, and especially the Imperial Stout. When it’s released each winter, it is distributed widely and poured liberally, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful. The brewer blends fresh beer with barrel aged beer for a novel product that’s full of chocolate and coffee but not overly complex. And for such a boozy beer (11.8% ABV) the Boulevard Imperial Stout is smooth from start to finish.
Founder’s Imperial Stout
Founder’s is another Michigan-based gem, and their Imperial Stout can cure even the coldest winter. It’s got big time flavor: coffee, molasses, brown sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. It pours a thick motor oil black and is unapologetically low in carbonation. This is a velvety stout that dances like an adorably drunken butterfly in your mouth, but stings your palate like a 10.5% bee. It’s built to age, so expect some changes as the years go by.
Avery Mephistopheles’ Stout
Mephistopheles is one hell of a stout – just look at the ominous red eyes on the label. They foretell of a beer that’s darker than dark. It’s very roasty with some chocolate and vanilla, plus a unique sweetness akin to pecan pie. But this ain’t no picnic, because this one clocks it at 14% ABV.
Lakewood Bourbon Barrel Aged Temptress
The Lakewood Bourbon Barrel Aged Temptress is stunning. This imperial milk stout lives up to its reputation. It’s sweet from the lactose, strong from the bourbon barrels and smooth from the aging. This beer has a reputation of putting Dallas, TX on the beer map, and for good reason. It’s meant to be served at 52 degrees, but if you let it warm up just a bit, the bourbon flavors will really permeate into the beer.
Firestone Velvet Merkin
The Firestone Velvet Merkin is one of my absolute favorite beers, and perhaps the pinnacle of this list. Behold an imperial oatmeal stout aged in 10 year old bourbon barrels and sporting an ABV under 10%. This is highly uncommon, as lower alcohol barrel aged beers are less stable. But here, the brewers intentionally and meticulously crafted this one to yield a more approachable flavor profile. Firestone Walker has challenged the industry standard with their Velvet Merkin.
Thus concludes some of my top picks from the stout season (sorry, no porters in my cellar). We’re fortunate to live in a big, beer-loving world, so there are plenty of other great stouts to hunt down as well. If you’re new to the category, use these as a guideline, but as always, drink what you can and form your own appreciation for stouts.
Then, just keep looking forward. Because with spring and summer on the horizon, it’ll soon be time to fill our glasses with IPAs and saisons.
Photos: Laura Shaheen