To check out our companion piece on why waxed bottles suck and must be destroyed, click right here. To check out the previous companion piece on the history of imperial stout as a beer style, click here.
Consider this question for a moment: Are there currently more barrel-aged imperial stouts in this country than there are non-barrel-aged imperial stouts?
Before this blind tasting, my answer to that question would have been “Of course not, there’s always going to be more non-barrel-aged imperial stouts.” And then a fucking gross of stouts showed up at the Paste office, and now I need to reconsider these realities. Only one month after we received a “mere” 102 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts for January’s tasting and ranking, we raked in 144 of them for barrel-aged imperial stout. Note: These numbers are the result of sending a call to the same exact press list of breweries, and the difference in numbers is considerably more than a standard deviation. In other words, we’re pretty sure this isn’t a coincidence. We went into this tasting expecting fewer BA stouts in total, and what we received was the exact opposite.
It begins to make sense, when you think about it from commercial perspective. With the proliferation of barrel-aged stouts, it may be that breweries perceive “regular old Russian imperial stout” as prone to sit on store shelves when placed next to fancier, barrel-aged alternatives. In fact, one brewmaster friend of Paste whose brewery makes both a non-barrel and barrel-aged imperial stout said the non-barrel stout only existed because he didn’t have enough barrels for the entire batch. If he did, they only would have produced the barrel version, skipping over non-barrel imperial stout entirely.
Regardless, the clear take-away is that we’re living in an era of craft beer right now where the pure availability of barrel-aged beer has rocketed past anything seen in the past. Whereas these stouts were once unattainable treasures, as in the early days of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout or Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, they’re now something you can expect to acquire in any given liquor store. Sure, not all of those barrel-aged stouts are created equally, but at the same time, there’s a lot of painfully underrated barrel-aged stout out there as well, which is only amplified by the fact that there’s more of them on the shelves than ever. That became abundantly clear in the course of this tasting.
This tasting also revealed the evolution of barrel-aged imperial stouts in terms of barrel diversity. No longer can you assume “bourbon” when you see “barrel-aged” on a label, because these stouts are being aged in any kind of wooden container you can imagine. In addition to the still ubiquitous bourbon barrels, this tasting also featured all of the following barrels: Rye whiskey, scotch, spiced rum, coconut rum, brandy, apple brandy, red wine, sherry, maple syrup, neutral oak and even gin barrels in one notable example. And that’s not even scratching the surface of all the adjuncts, from the ubiquitous (coffee, vanilla) to the novel (cranberry?). Unsurprisingly, “barrel-aged stout” can mean a whole hell of a lot of different things in 2017.
And with that diversity, comes surprises. You will no doubt be shocked by at least some of the results below. There are stouts with world-class ratings that failed to make the ranked portion of the list, and there are stouts we’ve never even heard of before sprinkled throughout the top 20. There are beers in the 30s and 40s of this ranking that are often ranked among the best in the world, that beer geeks go out of their way to acquire and use as trade bait. To this, we can only say that blind tasting is an inherently unpredictable procedure. You may think there’s no way a certain favorite beer of yours could end up outside the top 10 … but we suspect that you’d be very surprised by the results if you had to blind taste 144 of these beers over the course of 12 days (which is how long this took).
A Note on Beer Acquisition
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these stouts are sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. Unsurprisingly, accidents happen, as in the non-barrel-aged tasting where one of the highest rated beers never reached us thanks to a shipping error (thanks, UPS!).
It goes without saying that there are prominent beers missing from the list. You won’t see any barrel-aged Dark Lord variants here, or some vintage Canadian Breakfast Stout. We do what we can, within reason. If you can find a more comprehensive blind tasting of barrel-aged imperial stouts outside of GABF, then by all means email it to me, because I’ll be very curious to read it. But as far as we can tell, no one else on the web is putting in 12 days of blind-tasting for a single ranking.
Fun fact: I went through the top 50 on a lark and calculated the average ABV of these beers. It’s 12.2%. Good lord. Another fun fact: There are stouts named “Dark Star” or “Darkstar” from three different breweries, and I’m honestly not sure if they’re referring the Grateful Dead song, the spy plane, or the Newtonian theoretical star from which no light can escape. Or perhaps the John Carpenter film? Who can say?
Rules and Procedure
— There was no ABV limit for this tasting, for obvious reasons. The tasting does include a couple barrel-aged “imperial porters” that breweries asked to enter, as we decided this likely gave the beer no discernable advantage.
— There was no limit of entries, although GOOD GOD, we’ve got to start enforcing a much more rigorous limit in the future, for obvious reasons. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
— Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, professional brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
— Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP tasting.
The Field: Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts #s 144-51
At this point, it feels like I always seem to write a disclaimer here, explaining that we quite enjoyed most of the beers in The Field, but this is especially true for imperial stout (and barrel-aged stouts). Because really: The typical brewery’s imperial stout is a pretty tasty thing, and something we’d be happy to drink any Friday night (or Monday morning).
With that said, this tasting reinforced an opinion I’ve espoused before: Barrel-aging does not equate to automatic “bonus points.” There are beer geeks out there who feel compelled to give higher ratings to every barrel-aged version of a beer, but the plain truth is that they’re not always better, and they’re sometimes measurably worse. Barrel-aging can do strange things to a perfectly constructed malt profile. It can mute a wonderful coffee nose. It can add overtly harsh booziness very easily. Like any other ingredient or brewing process, you need to do barrel right in order for it to improve the finished product.
The beers below in The Field are listed in alphabetical order, and are thus not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Although … I’ll just go ahead and say it. Beer #51 was River North Single Barrel Mr. Sandman, the BBA version of the non-barrel imperial stout winner out of Denver. Sorry guys! Kind of a weird coincidence on that one.
3rd Sign Brewery Osiris Oak Imperial Stout
Allagash St. Klippenstein
Avery Uncle Jacob’s Stout
Avery Vanilla Bean Stout
Beachwood BBQ & Brewing 10 (Tenth Anniversary)
Bent Hill Brewery Imperial Maple Stout
Bottle Logic Brewing Darkstar November
Braxton Brewing BBA Dark Charge /w chile, cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa
Braxton Brewing BBA Dark Charge Maple
Braxton Brewing BBA Dark Charge
Breakside Brewery The Oligarch
Burial Beer Co. Houtenhamer
Burlington Beer Co. Strange Apparition
Clown Shoes Exorcism at Sunset
Clown Shoes La Pinguina En Fuego
Commonwealth Brewing Co. Marvoloso
Coronado BBA Stupid Stout
Deschutes The Abyss
DESTIHL Brewery BBA Dosvidanya
Dogfish Head Palo Santo Maron
Due South Brewing Co. BBA Mariana Trench
Elevation Beer Co. Oil Man
El Segundo Brewing Co. Standard Crude
Evolution Craft Brewing Co. Menagerie 10
Farnham Ale & Lager BBA Imperial Russian Stout
Finback Brewery Between the Dead
Finback Brewery BQE
Founders Lizard of Koz
Full Sail BBA Imperial Stout
Great Divide Whiskey Barrel Yeti
Great Lakes BBA Blackout Stout
Heavy Seas Siren Noire
Henniker Brewing Co. King Misanthrope
Hoppin’ Frog BBA B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher
Hoppin’ Frog BBA D.O.R.I.S. the Destroyer
Indeed Brewing Co. Rum King
Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery Dark Apparition
Jekyll Brewing BBA Imperial Stout
MadTree Brewing BBA Axis Mundi
Moa Brewing Co. Imperial Stout (red wine barrels)
New Belgium Clutch
New Holland Dragon’s Milk (regular)
New Holland Dragon’s Milk Reserve (Coconut rum barrel)
New Holland Dragon’s Milk Reserve (Triple Mash)
Night Shift Brewing Darkling
Odell Dark Theory
Odell Jolly Russian
Orpheus Ye Who Enter Here
Oskar Blues Death by Coconut Rum Barrel
Oskar Blues BBA Ten FIDY
Peak Organic Oak-Aged Mocha
pFriem BBA Imperial Stout
Pipeworks Brewing Co. Over the Line
Pipeworks Brewing Co. The Hyper Dog
Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Bomb!
Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Paradise
Prison City Udderly Smooove
Ratio Beerworks BBA Genius Wizard
Reuben’s Brews BBA Imperial Stout
Revolution Brewing Cafe Deth
Rhinegeist Brewery BBA Ink
River North Brewery BA Avarice
River North Brewery Single Barrel Mr. Sandman
Rogue Ales Rolling Thunder Imperial Stout
Salty Nut Brewery Rum Barrel Imperial Stout
Samuel Adams Thirteenth Hour
Schlafly Ibex Cellar BBA Imperial Stout
Second Self Beer Co. Manic Pixie Dream Beer
Silver City Brewery Motor Boater
Silver City Brewery BBA Time Traveler
Silver City Brewery Strange Love
Smuttynose Brewing Co. The Stallion
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers BBA Scarface
Spider Bite Beer Co. BA Boris the Spider
Station 26 Brewing Co. BBA Dark Star
Station 26 German Chocolate Dark Star
Sweetwater BBA Imperial Stout
Three Taverns Departed Spirit
Three Taverns Double Barrel Helm’s Deep
Triptych Brewing AJ’s Stout
Troegs Independent Brewing Impending Descent
Two Roads Igor’s Dream Armagnac Barrel
Two Roads Igor’s Dream Rye Barrel
Upslope BA Milk Stout
Valiant Brewing Co. BBA Chernyy Medved
Victory Java Cask
Warped Wing Brewing Co. Whiskey Rebellion
Westbrook/Evil Twin Imperial Mexican Biscotti Cake Break
Wicked Weed BBA French Toast
Wicked Weed Dark Arts
Wild Heaven Beer Gravitational Wave (Scotch barrel)
Wiseacre Brewing Astronaut Status
Wormtown Brewery Spies Like Us Quercus vs. Alba
Next: Barrel-aged imperial stouts 50-20