As influential as Sierra Nevada has no doubt been since its inception in the early days of the American craft brewing scene, it’s not exactly a brewery one typically associates with big, burly stouts. For better or worse, Sierra Nevada’s national fame is indelibly tied to its classic pale ale, the quintessential American example of the style.
Still, the brewers in Chico do like to experiment from time to time. Their annual “Beer Camp” series is always fascinating, affording regular folks an opportunity to design new beers from the ground up. And both Sierra Nevada Porter and Sierra Nevada Stout are solid budget options for the dark beer lover. But imperial stout? That was an interesting novelty for Sierra Nevada when they first rolled out Narwhal last year.
That rollout was not without some controversy, which came to light after Sierra Nevada came into conflict with a Brooklyn-area startup called Narwhal Brewery. The operators claimed that in their earliest negotiations with Sierra Nevada, the large craft brewer claimed they would drop the Narwhal name. Instead, however, Sierra Nevada filed for a federal trademark on the name, taking advantage of Narwhal Brewery’s inaction. You can decide for yourself if you care—for what it’s worth, “Narwhal Brewery” eventually changed its name to Finback Brewery and still hasn’t publicly opened.
As for Sierra Nevada’s imperial stout, it’s a unique entry in the style. The aroma isn’t terribly assertive, suggesting heavy roast and a faint nuttiness. In its flavor, though, it’s quite interesting—a surprisingly dry and roasty imperial stout for something broaching the 10% ABV mark.
The roast is uncharacteristically met by a wave of deep, dark fruitiness that tastes like cherries or raspberry, ending in medium-high bitterness and substantial alcohol burn. The oddest thing is the contrast between fruit flavors and dryness. Very few imperial stouts combine this sort of fruit character with a lack of residual sweetness. The effect is a bit like a cup of unsweetened but cherry-spiked French roast coffee, pleasant but unusual.
The beer loses a few points, however, in being a tad unbalanced. The bitterness is fairly intense, out of proportion with sweeter flavors, and the alcohol is present in a fairly strong way. This being the late 2013 batch of Narwhal, it might be that this beer will be superior in a year’s time, when it has mellowed slightly. If you pick some up, consider setting a few bottles aside to age.
Brewery: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
City: Chico, CA
Style: American imperial/double stout
Availability: Winter seasonal