About 2 months ago, I reviewed Sierra Nevada’s Stout and found it to be abjectly unpleasant. Caustic, sharp, foreign, offensively dry – it wasn’t really my thing. What’s more, when I looked it up online, I found the beer got rave reviews across the board. Not only could I obviously not handle this particular stout, it was pretty clear I was in need of some schooling on the style in general.
Since then I’ve done my homework (both in the books and in the bottle). For one, I’ve found just how tasty stouts really are. More surprisingly (if not entirely as important) I’ve discovered how accessible and malleable they can be as well. The notion of the big bad stout is misguided – it’s like thinking every sculpture one earth is Mt. Rushmore. Sure, it’s as dark as stone is hard, but that and its general toastiness are pretty much the only necessary criteria. From there, the brewer – like the sculptor – can take the media wherever they want to go.
This week, I was lucky enough to try some of the most well-crafted and delicious stouts out there. Like a walk through a sculpture garden, it showcased the common virtues and imaginative versatility of the style.
The first beer falls pretty squarely into that big, bad, and bold category: Brooklyn Brewery’s Black OPS. Consider what goes into making this stuff. You start with a beer that’s over 10% alcohol (11.6 to be exact). Next, age it in bourbon barrels for four months – pick up all those warm, powerful flavors. Then, when you’ve basically achieved the liquid equivalent of King Kong, bottle condition it with champagne yeast to give it a lift that – by any reasonable measure – it doesn’t deserve. What you end up with is one of the boldest, most distinct, and somehow most cleanly composed beers I’ve ever had. Black OPS was an onslaught of sensory stimuli ranging from its luxurious mouthfeel to the unexpected presence of coconut (a flavor note my friend, Tom, attributed to it’s being aged in American oak). It’s by no means an archetypal stout, but it’s novelty was definitely exploited to the fullest.
If Black OPS was King Kong in a tuxedo, Allagash Black might as well have been James Bond. Never have I tasted a beer so elegant, composed, and mysterious. Hyperbole be damned – it was straight-up sexy. Similar to the Black OPS only in color, Black’s flavor profile was much more subtle. It of course had the stout’s trademark toastiness, which was woven together with Belgian spices, dark fruits, and chocolate. No one element was clearly discernible – instead they muddled and married, creating a much more complicated shade of black. The beer’s mouthfeel matched its flavor – delicate and ethereal. With every sip was another detonation of the soft fluffy mousse. Though Black OPS demanded adoration, this beer earned even more by letting its qualities speak for themselves. Get it for a special occasion and savor it.
This week also saw a couple of nice Espresso Stouts – one from Captain Lawrence (just north of Manhattan) and the other from Hitachino (Japan!). Both were really nice with deep, rich espresso notes (achieved by adding coffee beans to the mash). Of the two, Hitachino took the spotlight. It was so smooth and flavorful, with just the right amount of sweetness to round out the bite of the espresso. The Captain Lawrence is also delicious, it just trades a touch more toasted coffee bean for sweet latte.
What this allows for, I thankfully stumbled upon, is the opportunity to add your own sweetness with a scoop of vanilla gelato. Unbelievable. It goes where root beer never could, imparting a depth of flavor – campfire char, espresso, salt – that gives the drink an unexpected sense of maturity. ( We’ve got the Captain Lawrence on tap at Stuzzichini now – come down and try an Espresso Stout Float for yourself!)
I once saw the blackness of a stout as a symptom of its size – a sign of the curse that made it a monster. Now I know it to be something completely different. By having such an unmistakably defining element – jet black toastiness – stouts are given a broad range for transformation. This “black canvas” has drawn the artistry of the brewer, who constantly seeks to push the limits of the medium. And with a bottle of Oyster Stout currently chilling in my fridge, I’m always willing to relearn the boundaries.