Paul Deines: I’m here with fellow writer Terry Hall, who was nice enough to come by today. We’re going to do a tasting of three Imperial Stouts. Before we begin, Terry, I have shared many drinks with you in the past, but they have generally been of the Coors Light variety.
Terry Hall: They have been on the light, watery side, yes.
PD: When you’re not drinking Coors Light with me, what do you drink beer-wise?
TH: Well, I have my standard set of beers that are widely available. They’re a step above Coors Light … I tend to drink Sam Adams. Being from Pennsylvania, I really like Yeungling. “Lager” is really my standard drink in those bars. I’m also a fan of Heineken. In my travels throughout Europe, Heineken gained a place in my heart after doing the “Heineken Experience.” I like Blue Moon and Hoegarden. I like things with that citrusy taste. If it’s available, Magic Hat #9 or Delirium Nocturum. And I do enjoy a good stout. I like Guinness, but the one that really got me is – I don’t know if you can get it everywhere – Left Hand Milk Stout. It is the best stout I’ve had.
PD: Left Hand is great. I first had the Milk Stout in Louisville, Kentucky, when I was home for the holidays. It’s more an Irish type stout. Bready, drier, heavy but not intensely robust, and the alcohol is more measured. The ones we’re doing are more in a derivation of the old Russian Imperial Stout. The style is not actually Russian, it’s an English style. But it was created, apparently the story goes, to ship to the Russians back in the 1800s. They wanted to send a prime example of the English brewing style, but the issue was that it would freeze during the sea journey through the Baltic. So, they made this beer that was incredibly high in alcohol because that would prevent the freezing. The American version generally clocks in around 9%, 10% ABV, but can go higher than 15%. A lot of coffee tastes, chocolate, coffee, vanilla, chilis sometimes.
Brasserie Dieu du Ciel! – Péché Mortel – 9.5% ABV
PD: We’re starting with a Canadian beer. It’s from the Brasserie Dieu du Ciel! (translates God in Heaven!) and it’s called Péché Mortel (Mortal Sin). It’s their imperial coffee stout brewed with fair trade coffee. I’ve only had one beer by these people before, called Aphrodite. Also a stout, and one of the tastiest I’ve ever had. Péché Mortel comes recommended by every person I’ve ever met in my life who works at a beer store, and I was able to grab the last one available at the Bowery Whole Foods.
TH: Is it difficult to find?
PD: This one is done for the season, but it will be back, I think, the end of the year.
TH: That’s interesting. When beers have seasons, is it similar to fruit having seasons?
PD: Yes, in as much as it takes time to produce. All three of these beers are limited or rotating releases and they only come out at certain times because it takes so long to produce them. The ones with the big flavor profiles like Péché Mortel are prohibitively expensive to produce regularly.
TH: I’m sitting a full two feet away from this stout, and I can smell it.
PD: The coffee is just wafting. Oh, yeah, with a little booze to it.
TH: I could wake up to this in the morning.
PD: It would be a fine breakfast beer. They say beer geeks and alcoholics have breakfast beers.
TH: It’s dark. I’m holding it up against the light in the window and it is not penetrating. It’s black. You can see a bit of the deep amber color right around the edge.
PD: Well, let’s give it a try.
TH: That’s good.PD: The coffee pops. Really sweet up front, and a little bitterness after.
TH: This is the first stout I’ve had where I taste that the bitterness isn’t calmed. They don’t try to mute it, but there is a sweetness that accompanies it. It’s really well integrated. Makes a nice contrast.
PD: Normally I try to pick other notes, but mostly I’m just getting the coffee.
TH: I can taste that chocolate, though. This is something that, it reminds me of a dark chocolate; I could have it with maraschino cherries.
PD: And often when I have a coffee stout, right on the back end of the taste I get some cherry. It may just be a natural association you have.
TH: So when breweries produce these beers, there is a limited supply. And there are people who, what, will collect them?
PD: And especially beers like this. A stout like this will age well. Mature. On the back end of this stout, you feel a slight burn from the alcohol. Over time that will mellow as the beer ages. Everything integrates. On a high alcohol stout like this, I’ll buy a few and cellar two to try a year from now.
TH: What is the difference between a “cellar beer,” and… well, for example, you wouldn’t cellar Coors?
PD: You wouldn’t cellar Coors, but there are also plenty of higher-end beers you would not cellar. Like an IPA. You taste a good IPA, and there’s that initial burst of hoppy, foresty, citric taste, and that burst of flavor goes away very quickly if an IPA is left sitting for months, even in cool dry conditions. This will hold up several years, aging like a bottle of wine. I mean, eventually it will pass its prime. But a beer like this could age a year or four.
TH: Is it my imagination, or is the flavor of this changing?
PD: Yeah, as it warms up. We might have even poured it a little too cold. I’ve pulled our next beer already to let it warm and I may pull our third stout now too.
TH: It’s getting sweeter. I don't taste the coffee-bitterness to the same degree. Like with dessert wines, I can see how this could be a dessert stout. It’s not very heavy, but I wouldn’t sit back on the couch and drink three or four of these. It’s something I could drink with a cut of meat.
PD: But it would also do well after dinner.
TH: You could have it with dessert. It’s full-bodied enough. It holds its own.
PD: That’s what I found in Belgium, which doesn’t do anything as dark and chocolaty as this in their beers, but they go more caramel and fruity. We’d have a big meal in Bruges and return to the hotel, and I’d want instead of dessert, to have one of those big, boozy, fruity ales as a night-capper instead of a dessert wine or a single-malt.
Goose Island Beer Company - Night Stalker – 11.7% ABV
PD: I wanted initially to get a different Goose Island brew: the Bourbon County Brand Stout. But I didn’t plan this out well enough, so it’s pretty much gone from the shelves. Anyway, the Night Stalker is the base stout for BCBS, aged in bourbon barrels. Night Stalker is not normally released; so I have no clue what we’re in for.
TH: It doesn’t have the same level of aroma as the Péché Mortel.
PD: Right off the bat, I can tell this doesn’t have a coffee presence, mostly chocolate malting here.
TH: Let’s drink.
 Of course, two weeks after this tasting, I found four dusty bottles of the BCBS at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods. They are presently sitting in my closet, awaiting consumption in the fall and winter.
PD: Not the bold flavor of the Péché Mortel,
TH: No big contrast, either. I’m getting a sense of caramel.
PD: Caramel, toffee, chocolate, a little … date? Definitely a simpler profile.
TH: Not as much pop, but it’s still a tasty stout.
PD: I wouldn’t say no to this, by any stretch, if it was offered, but I wouldn’t seek it out. It’s roasty, very sweet.
TH: Yeah, there really is no contrast between the bitterness and the sweetness competing on your tongue like the Péché Mortel, which was really active. You would drink it and go through the experience of the profile a few minutes after you put the glass down. This stout is tasty; I’m sure you can have it with sweet potatoes or something sugary.
PD: It would really bring out the sugar notes in all those foods. But it’s strange how muted this is. There’s virtually no bouquet. You swirl it around and stick your snout in there, you get some hazelnut, caramel, maltiness, but nothing that bursts out of the glass. You drink it, there’s a shock of tangy sweet candy, and then it’s gone.
TH: This is the type of beer where, if you’ve never had a stout and you don’t know what to anticipate, I’d give you this. There’s a pleasant sweetness to it that would give people the idea what the malt tastes like. It’s like a beer with training wheels.
PD: There’re more familiar tastes. Guinness can be an endurance test if you’ve never had a stout. I mean, I remember my first Guinness at 19.
TH: Most people’s first experience is a black and tan. Something lighter with Guinness as a base, to add the malty flavor. It reminds me of having a nice piece of chocolate from Switzerland or Belgium. When you have it and then have a Hershey bar, the more familiar chocolate seems incomplete or diluted. It has all the same components of the Belgian chocolate but it’s not the same rush of cocoa, rich, milky, and viscous, oozing out like Willy Wonka. That’s not the Hershey experience. And, that’s like Guinness compared of something like this.
PD: Yeah, there are some beers that cry out to be a meal unto themselves. They have a hundred notes they hit all at once and change with each taste. You don’t want to mix them with food. That’s amazing, but I think there is value to a beer like Night Stalker that functions best, probably, as a pairing. Another example that springs to mind is Brooklyn Brewery’s local saison, Radius. It’s not a great beer; it’s a good beer. I drank it last month with polenta and raw oysters and it’s the perfect pairing. Makes you feel like you’re on a farm in a lush central European country living off the land. People get enamored of the big beers like the Péché Mortel, but they forget the less intense standbys.
TH: One criticism: this is so sweet, and there’s so much of it, I could imagine getting sick of it before the bottle is done. It is akin to getting a blue raspberry slushy on a hot summer day. I love it when I get it, but I’m not making it more than halfway before throwing it away.
PD: There are 22 oz.-ers, where I down the whole thing. You’ve seen me do it. This is not one of them. I’m happy you’re here to help.
TH: Péché Mortel is complex enough, it’s the beer for beer guys like you that want to sit down, share it, and discuss it. Not so much with Night Stalker.
PD: When I get my hands on some BCBS, we’ll circle back up. I’ll be curious about your experience of the barrel-aged stout compared to the Night Stalker. Anyway, I feel like we’re pretty much done with this.
Founders Brewing Company - KBS (2013) – 11.2% ABV
TH: If I want to drink the finest stouts in the world, where do I go?
PD: Stout is a big category, but if we’re talking, on the sites where people debate the best beers being made today, what is the best stout, the best imperial or whatever stout being made? Many would say it is the beer we are about to drink, the Founders KBS. From Michigan.
TH: So, I’m not going to Ireland?
PD: Well, this is something I harp on a lot, which is it’s a little ridiculous to argue something as subjective as a beer can be the best. Every culture has its ways, and there are so many ways to craft a beer.
TH: There’s a lot of gray in deciding what the best way is; how to make a great beer.
PD: And brewing goes back to ancient times. Modern understanding of brewing comes from mostly Europe in the 19th and 20th century. And stout artisanry found its epicenter in England and Ireland. They created the standard recipe. And then in the last 30 years, American craft brewers blew this style up. And, America has become the dominant voice really in stouts, like it has with the IPA
TH: I didn’t realize we, Americans, were producing stouts at such a high level; that this beer we’re about to drink is the top tier. It makes me feel good, you know, as an American.
PD: Well, to lay it out in really reductive terms: if you look at a site like Rate Beer or Beer Advocate and you look at the Top 10 - it changes all the time, but I’d wager that a third of the beers on the top ten are going to be Imperial Stouts, and they’ll be from the Midwest, brewers like Dark Horse, Goose Island, Three Floyds, Bells and Founders. Of course you get fine stouts elsewhere, from the Mid-Atlantic (eg: Brooklyn Black Chocolate) to the West Coast (Firestone Walker’s Parabola).
TH: It’s conceivable then that a connoisseur can anticipate which direction beer is going; you can have a sense of who to follow. Or techniques like aging in bourbon barrels to, what, infuse flavors?
PD: Yeah, exactly. Infuse the taste and smell notes of bourbon. Like the other example I mentioned, Dark Lord –
TH: The Dark Lord. That’s Voldemort. You name a beer Voldemort, by the way, I will drink it.
PD: There probably already is one. I mean the Venn diagram of fantasy novel fans and craft beer fans is, like, a single purple circle.
TH: I know that one of the guys who founded the video game company BioWare recently left to write about craft brewing.
PD: Of course he did. If you’re sitting around playing video games, what do you do but drink beer? Then, you start drinking better beer, and then one day you find your fridge is mostly full of beer and your girlfriend hates you because there’s no room for anything else.
TH: Where am I supposed to put my quiche, asshole?
PD: So. Founders KBS, formerly known as the Kentucky Breakfast Stout – I’ve heard it said that it’s called the KBS because they cannot legally call it the Kentucky Breakfast Stout since it’s brewed in Michigan.
TH: Yeah, just like we call them the New Jersey Giants. Anyway, it’s a very unassuming bottle. It doesn’t feel the need to announce itself with some ominous or even catchy art. If you put that on a shelf, I would walk right past it.
PD: And yet it’s one of those beers that people go crazy for. It’s an event beer. Apparently when the tickets went on sale for the brewery release, it crashed Brown Paper Tickets and infuriated everyone. But it did hit New York, and I managed to snag, well, one.
TH: You got one? How do they distribute this –
PD: Kept it behind the counter. People lined up, one per customer. I took a cab up to the one place I knew still had it. Got my ration: six dollars, no gouging.
TH: When it comes to beer distribution, is New York always a sure bet?
PD: Not necessarily. We get a lot, but most of the top-ranked brewers I mentioned don’t distribute in New York. And that’s actually something I like about craft beer culture is your capacity to enjoy it is limited, mostly, by geography and a distribution and less by price.
Okay, let’s do this. I am genuinely excited here.
 A week later, I happened upon a second, but this is not a stout that lasted long on New York’s shelves. It also did not help that I had to work on the evening it hit at the Park Slope bottle shops.
 Prominent examples: Russian River, St. Sixtus - Westvleteren, Alchemist, Bells, Cigar City and Three Floyds.
PD: That is a medley. All the stuff you’d expect – chocolate, vanilla, coffee – but the bourbon. Often with these things, the bourbon just smacks you in the brain, but this one is very well integrated. You can smell the wood, the oak coming off of it. I wonder: the Founders Breakfast Stout, which is not the base for this, uses Kona coffee. I wonder if Kona coffee is used in the KBS.
TH: This is delicious, it’s complex. It’s got the mouth-watering sensation going after you sip it.
PD: And it’s oddly light. The mouth feel is definitely substantial. There’s a weight to it, but it’s not as heavy as the Peche Mortel, and definitely not as heavy as the Night Stalker. Really amazingly drinkable.
TH: I like the vanilla at the end. The other two stouts don’t have that. The vanilla is a nice complement. The beer has a pop and intensity, but before it becomes too intense the vanilla mutes it. Gives you a sense of progression then eases off. It allows you to keep drinking without becoming overwhelmed. This is definitely the one you don’t get sick of. This is definitely the champion for the best stout I’ve ever had.
PD: Me too. No doubt.
TH: We have a winner. This is absolutely deserving of the acclaim it’s received.”
PD: We saved a half the bottle of Night Stalker to drink after this, but it’s going to be pretty difficult after the KBS. I feel bad: the Night Stalker is not a bad beer at all, but it just doesn’t stand up to the Péché Mortel and certainly not to the KBS.
TH: The thing is in this arena you’re dealing with the best of the best. So necessarily somebody’s got to lose. When you reach the pros, everyone is good. And I don’t feel the least bit bad for the Night Stalker.
I feel like the KBS, the main body of the taste, which is the intermingling of coffee and dark chocolate, is similar to the Péché Mortel. But the bourbon and oak up front and the vanilla at the end – the balance is magnificent. And this thing is 11.2% ABV, but you would not know it. You definitely feel the 11.7% on the Night Stalker.
TH: The thing that the Night Stalker has going for it is the high alcohol content. But, the KBS is clearly the connoisseur’s choice. The Night Stalker is definitely the weakest of the three. It’s a one-trick pony, without the complexity of the other two. And, I think my lesson here is that for an Imperial Stout, you can really overdo the sweetness. It needs to be balanced with a solid bitterness. The sweetness should be an accent, not the driving force. The KBS involves multiple flavors and accomplishes each. Péché Mortel balances bitter and sweet, but KBS has much more going on. It’s not sending me in any one direction. And you know, we’ve had a fair amount of beer in a short span of time, but I don’t feel especially full. It begs the question: with a beer of this caliber why not produce it year-round?
PD: The brews they produce – the Breakfast Stout, the All Day IPA, Dirty Bastard – are magnificent to begin with, and they need to get those out there because people want them. They’re staples. So that’s a lot of their infrastructure dedicated to those beers. The KBS is a tough beer to make. They brew the stout, and then they age it in bourbon barrels in a frigging cave for a year. Next year’s batch is already down there: the quantities are set. Production’s increased, but this will never be a plentiful release. It logistically cannot be.
TH: Well, let’s finish this and have dinner.PD: Sounds good. Terry – thanks for joining me today as the official Imperial Stout newbie.
PÉCHÉ MORTEL (Brasserie Dieu du Ciel!) – Available on a rotating basis – generally once a year – wherever Shelton Brothers distributes, which is most states.
NIGHT STALKER (Goose Island Beer Company) – One-time release, but not a huge seller. You can probably still find it at a decent bottle shop. Anywhere in Goose Island's large distribution area.
KBS (Founders Beer Company) – Yearly limited release, extremely popular. You’re unlikely to find it on a shelf these days. If Founders distributes in your area, your best bet is to wait until late March/early April and start calling bottle shops for info.