Generally speaking, techniques for producing a barrel-aged stout don’t change very often. Sure, a brewer can experiment by dumping beer into something other than the traditional bourbon barrel or doctoring it up with other additives, but the process pretty much stays the same. After committing a viscous batch of stout to a multi-month stay in an oaken hotel, the magical elixir emerges with the added flavor profiles given to it by the wood of the barrel and the remnants of the former spirituous tenant.
When Modern Times launched in 2013, it was fairly evident that they wouldn’t be doing things the same way as everyone else. For starters, a Post-it note mural of Michael Jackson and Bubbles takes up an entire wall of the tasting room at their Lomaland Fermentorium. Add in the fact that they might have broken San Diego law by launching without a straight-up IPA in the lineup, and you’ve got the makings of an untraditional brewery. Oh, and one more thing: they roast their own coffee in-house. That specialization came in quite handy when they created City of the Dead Coffee Stout, which brings a new spin to the concept of a barrel-aged beer.
As Modern Times Founder Jacob McKean explained in a 2014 blog post, green (unroasted) coffee beans are exceptionally prone to picking up all kinds of flavors and aromas from anything that might be nearby. While that presents a problem to coffee importers, it can be used as an advantage to those who want to add some extra tastes and smells to beer, and McKean and company did that by letting their beans rest in bourbon barrels for six months. While they’ve been experimenting with bourbon barrel-aged coffee stouts in the tasting room for more than a year, City of the Dead is the first version to be bottled and distributed.
Since the coffee beans are the only part of this beer that spent time in a barrel, City of the Dead delivers all of the flavors and aromas you want out of a barrel-aged stout, but leaves that telltale boozy burn behind. The beer pours black with a creamy light-brown head, but it’s not overly viscous. Aromas of coffee, vanilla, charred oak and bitter chocolate waft up from the glass and the flavor falls along the same lines, with the bitter chocolate becoming more pronounced as the beer warms. At only 7.5% alcohol, this is a great way to get the barrel-aged stout experience without a double-digit ABV dragging you down.
By McKean’s estimation, Modern Times is the only brewery making beer with barrel-aged coffee beans, but with results like this, imitators are sure to be close behind.
Brewery: Modern Times Beer
City: San Diego, Calif.
Style: Coffee Stout
Availability: Limited 22oz bottles