Monthly Archives: October 2017

Stout, stouter…

I’ve been buying some strong stouts and tasting them – well, drinking them, let’s be honest – in the hope of answering the two eternal questions about strong stouts. Firstly, do they have to be that strong? And secondly, are they actually any better than Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which is a lot cheaper and easier to come by than most of these? I’m drinking them in strength order, which means the beer I start with comes from none other than:

Guinness Antwerpen 8%
“Roasted malt, smoked wood and dark chocolate notes”
I got… that thing where front-of-mouth sweetness gradually and imperceptibly develops into a bitter finish, while at the same time the flavour of vanilla develops into aromatic bitter herbs. I never knew that was a thing, but apparently it is. This isn’t a multi-dimensional beer, and some might find it a bit straightforward and ‘clean’. It does what it does really well, though.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes. No. Not sure – I’d have to do another taste test. Put it this way, it’s definitely as good as Guinness FES.

Thornbridge Eldon 8%
“bourbon oak imperial stout … brewed with demerara sugar … chocolate, caramel and coffee notes and hints of vanilla” (Oddly, the ingredients list includes vanilla but makes no mention of sugar)
I got: whisky; lots and lots of whisky. The taste of a fairly basic and undistinguished porter was swamped almost immediately by whisky-toned full-bodied bitterness, whisky-edged sweetness and a finish dominated by whisky. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of Innis & Gunn. But to be fair, I’ve never had a whisky-aged beer that I liked – or that I didn’t think was too heavy on the whisky – so maybe it’s just not my thing.
Better than Guinness FES? No.

Anspach and Hobday The Stout Porter 8.5%
I got: something recognisable as a porter – more Soreen than burnt toast – but heavy and boozy: from the first taste you can’t miss the alcohol. It wears it surprisingly well, though. It’s something like eating liqueur chocolates, but made with a really good dark chocolate; there’s sweet coffee in there too and caramel (salted caramel?), before the soft landing of a charcoal finish. If you’d told me this one was aged in bourbon casks I’d have believed you.
Better than Guinness FES? Well, it’s certainly got more going on. But ultimately no – just a bit too boozy.

Saltaire XS Imperial Stout 8.9%
I forgot to write this up at the time, but what I remember is a big, smooth body with a charcoaly, moderately bitter finish, marred only by an insistent top-note of booziness. As I’ve said about strong pale beers before now, this tasted like a well-made mid-strength beer that had had a glass of tequila tipped into it.
Better than Guinness FES? No.

Buxton Subluminal Imperial Stout 10%
Getting nasty now, on the a.b.v. front at least. Surprisingly, this one isn’t at all boozy, despite being stronger than the last couple. It pours like ink, and the mouth-feel isn’t so much heavy as downright thick (although it’s not flat; there’s quite a pleasant prickle of carbonation). We’re in Soreen territory again, but now the malt and molasses are joined by something unmistakably savoury: an meaty note of Marmite umami. As it warms up the sweetness of the malt develops, building into something like a salted caramel effect. A bitter finish balances it out, but the bitterness is dialled down – not so much charcoal, more coffee grounds and dark chocolate. There’s no acetone overtone and not much alcohol heat, but it really drinks its strength; it’s a sipper, in a way that none of the others up to now have been. A mighty beer, really. Like all right-thinking beer drinkers, I’ve thought considerably worse of Buxton since they effectively got out of cask beer, but some of the stuff they do do they do rather well.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, yes, yes I said yes I will yes.

Blackjack Ace of Spades (red wine barrel) 10%
The Buxton beer impressed me, if anything, even more than the above review would suggest – it really felt like a milestone, one of those moments when my personal spectrum of excellence gets winched open to admit something new. So I came to this 10%er, 48 hours later, with high hopes. I’m afraid they were dashed almost immediately. Despite the strength, this is thinnish in texture. The initial flavour is all red wine; this is backed by a fairly heavy charcoal bitterness on the finish. And, er, that’s it. On the positive side, there’s no alcohol heat; it’s well put together in that respect. But it drinks like a cross between red wine and a lightish stout, with red wine predominating – and it is red wine rather than port, no density or sweetness to speak of. Disappointing.
Better than Guinness FES? Nope.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 10%
If I describe the elements of this one it’ll sound a lot like the Anspach and Hobday. So you’ve got malt loaf to begin with, just edged with a brandyish heat; then you’ve got the build-up to a dark chocolate and coffee-grounds finish; this is lightened with airy notes of vanilla and another dash of brandy. Overall it’s another “liqueur chocolate” job. What’s hard to explain is how this one does it so much better. It’s not that it hides its strength – as well as the moments where you actually taste the alcohol, the whole thing tastes strong; there are some varied and interesting flavours, but you’re never in any doubt that they’re being delivered through the medium of strong beer. But maybe that’s the point: it tastes strong, but what it doesn’t taste is boozy. There’s a glimmer of pure alcohol at the start and finish, but in between the two this is just a great big beer.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes indeed.

De Molen Rasputin 10.4%
Something I’ve noticed in a lot of these beers – right from the Antwerpen – is a gradual transition from one set of flavours to another; I think it’s a trick that strong stouts pull off particularly well. This is a masterclass in flavour transitions. It opens with jammy forest fruits, transitioning almost immediately into chocolate milk shake. Then something happens; tobacco notes appear and grow stronger, building to a finish that’s all coffee grounds and charcoal, overlaid with an unobtrusive tinge of brandy heat. I’ve had some IPAs that seemed to go off like fireworks – it’s sharp! it’s smoky! it’s sweet! it’s bitter! – but this beer isn’t anything like that; the contrasts are just as extreme, but the smoothness of the transition is such that you don’t notice them unless you stop to think about it. The chocolate predominated as it warmed up, making the beer a bit less interesting – not so much jam/chocolate/tobacco/coffee/charcoal/brandy, more ‘alcoholic Nesquik’. Still powerful stuff, in more ways than one. Black as ink, thick as gravy, lightly carbonated, pretty damn good.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, but not a world-beater.

Marble Lost Your Marbles 10.4%
“Red wine barrel aged forest fruits”
This is a good beer to finish this series with, because it doesn’t do anything I haven’t already described; this suggests either that I’m running out of things to say or that I’ve pretty much got this sub-style nailed. (Or both.) So, this is also a masterclass in flavour transitions; this also begins with forest fruits, a big jammy blast of them (but then, from my reading of the label, forest fruits are actually added to this one); this jammy flavour is wrapped up in chocolate milkshake, like tasting a jam mini-roll from the inside out; and you then get dark chocolate and coffee grounds, predominating towards the end, lifted finally by a touch of vanilla. There are two main differences between this and the De Molen, which put this one ahead: no loss of balance and complexity as it warms up, and no alcohol heat; it doesn’t drink its strength in that sense at all. Having said that, you are aware from the start that you’re drinking a really big, complex beer. (My wife’s unprompted reaction: “Oh my God!” She didn’t mean that in a good way, but never mind.) It’s a really excellent beer; if I were ranking these I’d say it’s second only to the Buxton, with the De Molen and Brooklyn in third and fourth places respectively.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, absolutely definitely; in a different league.

Nine beers; one more or less on a par with Guinness FES, four better and four not so good. My preconceptions about top-end strengths were well and truly challenged. On one hand, every one of the ‘good’ beers was 10% or above; on the other, only two of the nine tasted obtrusively ‘hot’ and boozy, and they were both below 9%. Results with regards to barrel-aging were more mixed; my prejudice against was confirmed by the Thornbridge and Blackjack beers (both of which, to me, tasted in their different ways of nothing but barrel) but strongly challenged by the Marble beer (which tasted of more or less everything under the sun).

Difficult to draw any broader conclusions. On one hand, there’s no guarantee that a strong stout, even from a brewery with a good name, will be worth splashing out on. On the other hand, sometimes the labels don’t lie, you certainly can’t assume that something with an a.b.v. in double figures will be a cranked-up ethanol monster. You pays your money and you takes your choice. (How much money? That’s another question.)

 

 

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