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Imperial Stout Tasting: Round 1

Jeff Bean

hophead, fisherman, and Nebraska-native

Since we just missed Goose Island's Stout Fest and we're (hopefully) seeing the last few cold days of the year, we thought it would be a good time to try some of the imperial stouts we've been hoarding.  Originally brewed by the English for the imperial Russian court in the 18th century, imperial stouts have been reinvented by American brewers.  Dark, complex, and strong, imperial stouts are one of the most celebrated styles in craft beer.  This marks the first in a series of blind tastings of some of the most highly-regarded (and sought after) beers in the world.
Beers, round 1
Almost any list of top beers has a strong bias towards imperial stouts and other strong beers.  I don't necessarily agree with the bias, but it is understandable given the complexity, strength, and limited availability of these beers.  They are usually produced in small batches, and are best consumed in small quantities.  Our tasting lineup begins with the following 3 stouts:
  1. Night Stalker 2010, Goose Island Brewing, Chicago, IL -  "Hoppy imperial stout....11.7% abv"
  2. The Abyss 2009, Deschutes Brewery , Bend, OR - "Brewed with licorice and molasses, 33% aged in oak and oak bourbon barrels...11% abv"
  3. Black Albert 2007, De Struise, Oostvleteren, Belgium - "Belgian Royal Stout, with over 100 IBUs...and a full-bodied Belgian character....13% abv"
Blind tasting
Tasting several imperial stouts side-by-side is an especially effective way to appreciate the style, as it gives a basis of comparison that allows us to appreciate the unique nuances of these powerful beers.  We decided to make our tasting blind as well, and had a friend pour the beers into numbered glasses.  After taking in the aroma of each beer and taking our own notes, we began to taste the beers one at a time.  We took our time, and after about 30 minutes of smelling, tasting, and writing, we each made a guess on which beer was which, and shared our notes/opinions.

We don't normally review beers, but we'll make an exception for this series.

Night Stalker - Goose Island's newest stout is heavily dry-hopped, which made it fairly easy to identify during the test.  The aroma was fruity (berries), hot, and slightly solventy.  It poured a deep garnet with almost no head.  As the beer warmed, the hop aroma became more pronounced and the alcohol heat subsided a bit.  The flavor profile was shorter than the others, but the hops were unlike any I've ever encountered in a stout.  The youngest beer of the group (2010), this will likely improve with age.

The Abyss - I'd had this before, but after tasting it next to the other stouts the beer's unique characteristics really came through.  Its thick mouthfeel, long flavor-profile, and intense roastiness are exemplary of the style, but the beer had something more.  33% is aged in bourbon barrels, but we didn't identify any bourbon.  What we did notice was a distinct oaky funkiness, somewhat akin to the sour ales of Belgium.  It was for this reason that both Matt and I guessed that this was the Black Albert (we apparently didn't read the label very carefully prior to the test).  It's easy to see why this is listed as #3 on BeerAdvocate's "Top Beers on Planet Earth."

Black Albert -  Though not as full-flavored as the Abyss, this beer was both complex and subdued, with no unpleasant characteristics.  All of us listed "licorice" as one of the most notable flavors, which led some of us to believe that this was actually the Abyss.  We all agreed that the Black Albert's body was nothing short of perfect:  silky and full, but not sticky.  Although it was the highest in alcohol, none of us detected any heat, possibly a result of having spent 3 years in the cellar.

This experiment underscored the value of tasting beers of the same style side-by-side.  Blind tasting has the added benefit of distancing one from preconceptions and expectations.  Our group was split on which we liked more, the Abyss or the Black Albert.  Controlling for age, I would personally give the edge to The Abyss.  Further research might be needed, but until then, we have many more world-class stouts to taste.



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1 Comment

Rohit Naimpally said:


As an interesting side-note, we should add that the Black Albert reminded Matt and I a little of the Bells Batch 9000 in so far as it was heavy on the licorice. While the palate and overall feel of the Black Albert was richer, flavor-wise it might be worth trying the two side-by-side.

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