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
FYI: If you click on any of the photos you can see a higher resolution image of the bottle.
50. Pipeworks BA The Jones Dog
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: Pipeworks produces a solid array of imperial stouts in any given year, with one of the most dependable releases being the imperialized version of their already heady milk stout, Jones Dog. We received both this beer and the coffee version, but ultimately found the more decadent richness of the base version more appealing. With pronounced vanilla notes, it gives off a somewhat caramelized, creme brulee-like vibe; dessert beer without getting more than moderately sweet (relative to the other beers on the table, keep in mind). It’s quite clear that a whiskey barrel was involved here, but Pipeworks manages to wring more of the “rich” aspects of the whiskey out, rather than being driven by oak/wood, which combines with a thick mouthfeel to create something like a boozy vanilla shake. Barrel-aged milk stouts didn’t always fare great in this tasting, which makes their success here impressive.
49. Revolution Brewing Deth’s Tar
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: All of 2 miles away from Pipeworks sits the original Revolution Brewing brewpub, where the company began during Chicago’s early 2010s brewery surge before expanding to a full-on packaging location. Their BBA stout is simultaneously less aggressive in terms of pure volume than some of the others on the table, while still being plenty flavorful. Light cocoa gives this beer a touch of milk chocolate sweetness and toasted hazelnut—Nutella is the obvious comparison to incorporate those two. A bit of red fruitiness signals the presence of booze and the barrel, but the overall impression is one of balance and harmony. Caramel/vanilla is slightly more suppressed, and the beer seeks a middle ground between bourbon’s richer aspects and a more oxidized alcohol/fortified wine influence.
48. Silver City Time Goddess
City: Bremerton, WA
The verdict: There were a handful of raspberry stouts in this tasting, and Silver City’s entry was one of the better ones. There’s no missing the pop of fresh raspberry on the nose; it’s bright, inviting and distinctive. As we noted in the Christmas beer tasting, the barrel-aged beers we’ve gotten from Silver City have a tendency to taste bigger than their listed ABVs, and this one is no exception. Balance is pretty good, although it tilts in the direction of sweetness in the finish, which we’d say is acceptable for a bourbon barrel-aged imperial raspberry stout. It’s also lacking a bit in balancing roast character when compared to the very best raspberry stout we had in this tasting, but all in all the fresh, juicy character of the berries and the accompanying acidity carries it ably to be a fun beer all on its own.
47. Firestone Walker Parabola
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: Oh geez, we’re probably going to hear from a few people about this one. A universally acclaimed beer with world-beating ratings online, it’s hard not to be aware of Parabola if you love barrel-aged stouts. Regardless, the solid ratings it managed on this day of blind tasting failed to put it at the top of the pack, and some will no doubt find that hard to believe. We can only report what we tasted: Intense booziness announces itself with a waft of red fruitiness and is somewhat dominant, with a viniferous quality that might make you suspect red wine barrels in place of (or in addition to) the blend of bourbon barrels that are used. Despite the booze, it’s an interestingly dry beer for a 14% ABV barrel-aged stout, although the more expected vanillans and caramel flavors come out to play a bit more as it warms. We didn’t perceive the bigger backbone of roast or char one might expect, but I can only respond with a shrug. This may just be one of the times where the format made us miss something we should have perceived. Or perhaps this is right where the beer belongs—it’s still in the top third, after all.
46. Stone Farking Wheaton W00tstout
City: Escondido, CA
The verdict: It was easy to miss the recent headline from Stone that the brewery wouldn’t be bottling their classic Stone Russian Imperial Stout in 2017, but the reasoning is no doubt at least partially tied to the success of W00tstout, along with the winter seasonal stout Xocoveza. This brew is striving for complexity rather than one-dimensional explosive flavors, with a grain bill that includes both wheat and rye, along with pecans. Likewise, the entire product isn’t bourbon barrel-aged—only a portion of it is, so the essence of the barrel never dominates. What we end up with is a boozy but rounded imperial stout that is well balanced between flavors of dark fruit (black cherry, currant) and plenty of drying roast. The nuts aren’t easy to pick up, but you may perceive a bit of “hazelnut spread” character in its chocolate note as it warms. A soft, supple mouthfeel rounds things out. Well-balanced, but just a hint “fruity” overall.
45. Three Taverns BBA Helm’s Deep
City: Decatur, GA
The verdict: We had two versions of this barrel-aged stout from Atlanta’s Three Taverns, and they take a bit of explanation. In its original format, the beer was meant to be exclusively sherry barrel aged, but the brewery then transferred the sherry stout to whiskey barrels, forming “Double Barrel Helm’s Deep.” At the same time, though, there was a small portion of the original beer that was aged exclusively in whiskey barrels, omitting the sherry entirely, and this version ended up being our favorite. This is a desserty stout, like highly sweetened French roast coffee. Heavy roast and a touch of smoke are complemented nicely by a heavy, creamy mouthfeel and slightly syrupy texture. Residual sweetness is high, but stops short of being overwhelming. Big vanilla, toffee and oak notes make its barreled origin unmistakeable. It’s an excellent example of the spirit-forward, richer dimension of classic BBA stout.
44. Prairie Pirate Noir
City: Tulsa, OK
The verdict: There were quite a few coconut beers in this tasting, and we’d be lying if we said they were universally loved. It’s not an easy flavor to find balance in—perhaps we’re more sensitive to coconut than most, but it goes from “a hint of coconut” to “Mounds candy bar” very quickly. Thus, it’s little surprise that our favorite entry from Prairie ended up being the one that was the least overtly coconut-inspired, the rum barrel-aged Pirate Noir. Big, sweet chocolate flavors envelop the palate on this one, with a thick, milkshakey mouthfeel. The rum barrel beers of this tasting tended to present as more purely sweet but also more rich/caramelized than their whiskey barrel cousins, and that held true here. Molasses cookie-like sweetness is met by a hint of toasted coconut and tons of sweetened dark chocolate, along with dark fruity/booziness. It definitely falls into the dessert beer camp, and does so with aplomb.
43. Lagunitas High West-ified Imperial Coffee Stout
City: Petaluma, CA
The verdict: Lagunitas waited quite a long time before bottling their first ever barrel-aged stout, but their selectivity paid off with High West-ified. This one is partially aged in rye whiskey barrels, which is a much more subtle difference than say, bourbon vs. rum barrels, and even after tasting 144 of these things I’d say it’s harder to conclude the specific characteristics that rye barrels are bringing to the finished beer when compared to bourbon. One would expect that the result would be a bit dryer, spice-forward profile, as in comparing rye whiskey with most bourbon, but when you’re already working with an imperial coffee stouts these become matters of very small, delicate nuance. Regardless, this is a very nice, very drinkable barrel-aged stout, packing moderately intense roast and nutty, Columbian-like coffee character, with lots of bittersweet dark chocolate as well. Drier than many, it has a little bit of the spicy, peppery character that some coffee varietals manifest—or perhaps that’s actually the rye at work. Regardless, Lagunitas clearly made some conscious effort here to blend the characteristics achieved by both the barrel and the adjuncts in a seamless way.
42. Dark Horse BBA Plead the Fifth
City: Marshall, MI
The verdict: If we come to the understanding that a lot of the BBA stouts are going to have similar flavor profiles, one of our other primary ways of measuring these beers will become the volume and assertiveness of that expected profile. With that in mind, Dark Horse’s BBA version of Plead the Fifth is a little bit less assertive than some of the others, with a slightly thinner body but very balanced flavors. Moderate roast and clean coffee on the nose give way to neutral oak and a bit of almost cola-like spice. Slightly overt booziness is present on the palate but fades quickly into restrained roast and a hint of residual sweetness. It’s clear the beer is a whiskey barrel, but this is one where the barrel itself contributes a significant oak woodiness rather than just the flavor of the bourbon it contained. It’s a sleeper, and feels like a beer that could sneak up on you and put you on your ass if you let it.
41. Epic Brewing Co. Big Bad Baptist
City: Salt Lake City, UT
The verdict: This is simply a beer that has impressed us for a long time, and it’s always dependably great, even as the ABV and coffee varietals are changing with every batch—that consistency isn’t easy, or common. The interesting thing about the base version of Big Bad Baptist (we also had two more variants) is its restraint and its subtleties in how it incorporates the barrel. It simply leans more on a great beer under the hood, and on the coffee adjunct in particular than it does on flavors directly derived from whiskey. An enticing, smoky roast profile mixes with spicy coffee, lots of dark chocolate and a silky mouthfeel to form a near perfect stout base. The bourbon barrels come through in a subtle, nuanced way, contributing light notes of oak and char. I think of it as one of the best examples of a great barrel-aged stout that could appeal to drinkers who don’t want their beer to overtly taste like bourbon.
40. Fieldwork Brewing Co. BA Eliza
City: Berkeley, CA
The verdict: Now here’s an interesting concept: A “New Orleans coffee”-inspired imperial milk stout, complete with chicory, that is then aged in bourbon barrels AND wine barrels. It almost sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the results suggest that the people at Fieldwork know what they’re doing. Coffee is immediately clear on the nose, although one of the tasters specifically cites it as having a more earthy, smoky or “black pepper” note that he later attributed to the chicory after the beers were revealed. Surprisingly, it’s actually considerably drier than you would expect for almost any “imperial milk stout,” but it does get the benefit of the thick, creamy body that lactose helps provide. Likewise, the cabernet portion of the barrel aging doesn’t announce itself in an immediately notable way outside of some mild dark fruitiness, which we honestly expect helps this beer maintain a solid profile rather than being all over the place. It’s like drinking a very chewy, roasty, earthy, thick-bodied coffee with a judicious amount of sugar.
39. DESTIHL Brewery Rye Barrel Dosvidanya
City: Bloomington, IL
The verdict: We suggested above that it’s difficult to pick out a lot of immediate, obvious differences between rye and bourbon barrel-aged stouts, and that shouldn’t be any surprise if you consider how different any two rye whiskeys or bourbons can be from one another. Here, it seems to be the fruitier aspects of rye whiskey (as many are more fruit-forward than American bourbon) that are emphasized, which results in an intriguingly unique barrel-aged stout. We get some red licorice as well as darker fruit (plum?) in this one, a slight jamminess that is offset by a respectable charge of char. There’s enough coffee character that you might mistake it as a milder coffee stout, and a very creamy, smooth mouthfeel to round everything out. Compared to the bourbon barrel version we also sampled, the rye variant of Dosvidanya was considerably dryer, fruitier and a bit more unrestrained and wild, which worked in its favor. It may be that with so many bourbon barrels in this tasting, it becomes easier to stand out when the circumstances are gently tweaked, but we expect it’s more likely that this is simply the more uniquely delicious of the two. We’d like to do some more side-by-side testing of the same base beer in both bourbon and rye barrels to gather more data on how whiskey grain bills are ultimately affecting the flavor profile of your barrel-aged stout.
38. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
City: Grand Rapids, MI
The verdict: If you want an illustration of how difficult it is to stay at the tip-top of the heap in any style when the number of entries expands exponentially, look no further than the venerable KBS. The last time we did a tasting of barrel-aged stouts it was back in 2015 and we had all of 23 beers, and yeah, KBS took home #1. This time, with 144 stouts? Hell of a lot harder, but that doesn’t mean Kentucky Breakfast Stout is any less great. It’s just that the rest of the industry continues to catch up to those O.G. beers that set the initial expectations of what makes a great barrel-aged stout. It’s funny, because in the past, nuance and subtlety are hardly the sort of thing I’d expect to be praising a glass of KBS for, but it really is those elements that help this beer stand out in 2017, rather than bombast. Creamy and very soft, with a lovely, velvety mouthfeel, it’s built upon a delicious, roasty stout with pronounced coffee and especially bittersweet dark chocolate notes. Residual sweetness is higher than “a hint” but a bit below “moderate,” in perfect balance with roast-derived bitterness. The bourbon barrel does exactly what you’d expect it to do, delivering delicate vanilla and toffee-like notes, along with a light tang of oak, rather than a ton of overt whiskey or booze. In fact, booziness is remarkably well hidden for the ABV. It remains highly sought after for a reason.
37. Westbrook Rum Barrel-Aged Siberian Black Magic Panther
City: Mount Pleasant, SC
The verdict: When it comes to big stouts, don’t sleep on Westbrook. Their 6th anniversary beer was #3 out of 102 in the non-barrel-aged imperial stout tasting, and that set the tone for a couple of very impressive showings in the barrel category as well. This version of Black Magic Panther is another rum barrel beer, but it comes across differently than most of the others. Rather than the syrupy sweetness and molasses-like caramelization we found in most of the rum barrel beers, this one instead played up a certain dark fruitiness as a stealthy side note—think plum, or black cherry. Marry that sweetness to deep, chewy maltiness, roast and bittersweet chocolate—perhaps even a slight touch of genuine tartness as well—and you have the rum barreled version of Siberian Black Magic Panther. It was a pleasant deviation from some of the rum barreled beers that came off as one-dimensional.
36. Two Roads Gin Barrel-Aged Igor’s Dream
City: Stratford, CT
The verdict: Our award for “most unique” almost certainly has to go to this beer, considering it was the sole gin barrel stout out of 144 entries. If you were handed this stout with absolutely no context, your first thought might be that you’re holding a black IPA, as the resinous, piney character of juniper/gin comes through assertively on the nose. However, it follows up the resinous, woody aromatics of gin with a truly unique twist of fruitiness—both lemon citrus and red berries. More dry than almost all the other stouts on the table, it combines a slightly lower ABV with moderate bitterness and a lack of residual sugar to create one of the easier-drinking barrel-aged stouts of this competition. Ultimately, though, this is the kind of beer where your mileage is going to vary. The biggest compliment we can give it is to say that none of us had particularly high hopes for the concept of gin barreled imperial stout, but everyone walked away pleasantly surprised. This stuff is distinctly unorthodox, but it definitely represents a niche waiting to be exploited. They took a risk, and it paid off.
35. Grimm Artisanal Ales Sumi Ink
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: One of the tasting sheets on this particular beer actually begins with the words “platonic ideal,” so you know that guy thought pretty highly of it. Which is, after all, what we tend to expect from Grimm, the husband and wife operation that has finished so impressively in numerous Paste blind tastings at this point. Here, the beer is bourbon barrel-aged with vanilla beans, although the immediate impression is that both of those additions are done quite subtly compared to most of the field. Toasted nuttiness and dark chocolate give way to a lighter, milk chocolate note likely brought on by the vanilla, along with a touch of black raspberry. Overall, Sumi Ink is a very balanced, harmonious stout that doesn’t tip its hand very far in any one direction. In less pleasant cases, that could create the impression of being “boring,” but here a few small elements, such as the genuine nature of that fudgy chocolate note, help give the beer a solid platform to stand on.
34. Cerebral Brewing BBA Here Be Monsters
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: This is exactly the kind of classical barrel-aged imperial stout in terms of profile that could score well in just about any competition, and afterward drinkers would look at the label and say “Who is this? I figured this was Bourbon County Stout.” It’s just dead in the middle of the bullseye for what you’d expect to get if you saw “BBA stout” on a label. A big nose of whiskey fumes and charred oak suggests a stout redolent in booze, followed by enticing aromas of chocolate and toffee. Big and full-bodied, Here Be Monsters has the type of heft you’d expect from the name, with an assertive, whiskey-forward palette of flavors that is significantly better in execution than some of the other stouts with liquor-soaked profiles. Still, this is a stout for drinkers who like to leave no doubt that they’re drinking something that came out of a bourbon barrel. Big and bold, but comfortably familiar.
33. Finback Apple Brandy Barrel BQE
City: Queens, NYC
The verdict: We expected to have a handful of brandy barrel beers in this tasting, but the inclusion of a few apple brandy stouts was an interesting twist on those expectations. This one is equal parts interesting and weird. It’s lacking the huge sweetness that we’d typically associate with most brandy barrel-aged beers, or perhaps it just has enough counteracting flavors to dry it out slightly. Deep and rich, with a fruity tang and a peppery, spicy nose that intermingles with an exotic sort of coffee/roast profile, it’s a stout with several aspects vying for dominance. Booziness is mostly working as a background player here, never threatening to hog center stage. It strikes us as an imperial stout where the unique qualities of the coffee and cacao nibs being used go a long way toward establishing its distinctive profile.
32. Due South Brewing Co. Rum Barrel-Aged Mariana Trench
City: Boynton Beach, FL
The verdict: Now here’s a rum barreled stout that is closer to how you’d likely expect a rum-infused stout to taste. Redolent in spice, fruit, booze and caramelized sugar, there’s a lot going on and it packs a high volume of flavor into 9.8% ABV. The rum is brash and assertive, infusing the beer with big waves of molasses sweetness, toffee-like flavors and plenty of vanilla. At the same time, though, there’s an undercurrent of baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg) and dried fruitiness that gives it much-needed complexity and stops the beer from simply being a caramelized sugar bomb. From the silky mouthfeel to its appreciable malt complexity, this is a stout that finds a solid hook in the form of the rum barrel but doesn’t rest on its laurels after doing so. Nicely done.
31. Burlington Beer Co. Sassamanash
City: Burlington, VT
The verdict: Burlington managed to give us what is possibly the most unique imperial stout of the tasting; one brewed with tart cranberry juice and aged on neutral red oak rather than a liquor barrel. The result is subtle but very effective—an undercurrent of very light tartness and slightly greater acidity, which amplifies the already present flavors of dark fruit. In reality, I think the key here is that there’s just a really great imperial stout under the hood, with an impeccable balance between dark baker’s chocolate, lightly smoky roast, dark fruit (black cherry, plum) and very light, restrained residual sweetness. Being offered this beer blind, you might not necessarily detect the oak or suspect that it was barrel-aged, but that doesn’t mean the wood isn’t adding an x-factor that would otherwise be missed. This is just a great stout, plain and simple, but the unique nature of its aging is a bonus.
30. Fremont Coffee Dark Star
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: If there’s one thing we’ve come to expect in a tasting of barrel-aged beer, it’s that Seattle’s Fremont Brewing Co. makes some of the very best in the world—if it’s high ABV, and it’s in a barrel, and it says “Fremont” on the label, then it’s uniformly excellent, a reputation earned through consistency. That’s why this is the lowest finish of the three variants of Dark Star we received, which is saying something. Like the others, it stands out for both its heft and its texture, with a thick, creamy mouthfeel and massive body, yet without the overwhelming booziness you’d find in many stouts of this weight class. The additional coffee is moderately intense, rich, semi-sweet but almost unnecessary—not that we’re complaining. With a drying roast profile that curbs the moderate sweetness, it earned a comparison to “fancy Belgian chocolate” in one taster’s sheet. This one is like a more sophisticated coffee milkshake.
29. Surly Barrel-Aged Darkness
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: The non-barrel-aged version of Darkness was #2 overall in the blind tasting of 102 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts, so it’s hardly a surprise to see the barrel-aged version also perform well. This is a prime example of the boozier aspects of the barrel expressing themselves in a way that is enjoyable, at least to our palates. The fruity, boozy aromatics explode out of the glass, with tons of raspberry, blackberry and chocolate-covered cherry. It smells big, hot and unrestrained—almost a little wild, but it pulls itself together before going entirely off the cliff. The palate is likewise explosively flavorful—this is not a beer that is going to get any criticisms for being boring or lacking in character. Candied fruitiness, alcohol and molasses-like caramelization are bigger presences than roast, which gives this stout an almost quadrupel-like flavor palette, sans the Belgian yeast esters. As it warms, there’s almost a stone fruit (peach?) note that is particularly unique. Assuming you don’t find the booze too assertive, this is a beer that almost demands long dissection and introspection, as well as time to warm and change. It’s one of the few times you see a 12% ABV and think “huh, that seems low.”
28. Four Quarters La Noche Oscura del Alma
City: Winooski, VT
The verdict: Okay, this is the only other beer on the table that can give the gin barrel stout a run for its money in the uniqueness department. Like the Finback stout, this one is made with apple brandy barrels, but then it’s additionally “conditioned on sour cherries, cacao nibs and smoked chipotle peppers.” Now that is an interesting cocktail, right there. On the palate—woah, this is some weird, wild stuff. It presents with ashy, smoky roast and oak, but also fairly perceptible tartness. It’s rare that we’ve ever tasted a beer that is so assertively roasty but also genuinely sour at the same time, and when we have in the past, it’s not exactly been a good combination. Here, however, the tartness is also supported by a fruity, somewhat viniferous quality (presumably via apple brandy) that works as an excellent counterbalance to the drying roast. The chiles, meanwhile, simply present a low-key note of spice that one taster’s notes observe as a “peppery tang.” This feels like a beer that could easily go terribly wrong, but the brewers at Four Quarters threaded the needle to somehow make a stout that is equal parts novel and genuinely enjoyable.
27. Blue Ghost Heaven Hill BBA Imperial Stout
City: Fletcher, NC
The verdict: It’s funny to think that the craft beer landscape evolves and changes so quickly that within a few years of being a groundbreaking achievement, one can describe a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout as “classical,” or even “old school.” So it’s with full acknowledgement of the inherent absurdity that we dub this an excellent example of “old school” BBA stout. Perhaps that’s thanks to the Heaven Hill barrels, as they’re among the most common of all whiskey vessels used in the craft beer industry, but whatever it is, this is just a very well executed riff on what has become an understood profile. The beer has a classic roast profile; slightly drier than some of the others, with notes of French roast coffee and dark chocolate. There’s a vanilla-tinged caramel flavor that pleasantly reminds one of a Werther’s Original, and a wave of toasted oak. Classic, dependable, and downright tasty. This may be a new beer, but it’s exactly the sort of imperial stout that popularized the style in the first place.
26. Lift Bridge BBA Silhouette
City: Stillwater, MN
The verdict: When we conducted this tasting two years ago, this surprisingly unheralded beer from Minnesota placed at #3 overall, so it’s good to see our earlier praise confirmed a second time in a much bigger, more difficult field. BA Silhouette is a beer that definitely highlights the “chocolatey” aspect of imperial stout, with a complex cocoa character that starts off like roasted nuts and transitions into a sweet, fudgy note. Or to quote one taster’s sheet: “smoked chocolate, sweet and potent.” Bourbon is also present, bringing well-balanced flavors of sour oak and toffee, balanced by moderate, slightly smoky roast. To quote a second score sheet: “On point, just right.” It’s indeed quite close to the center of the bullseye for classical BBA imperial stouts, with a decadent, chocolatey highlights that are easy to appreciate. It’s a crowd-pleaser.
25. Drake’s Jolly Rodger BBA Imperial Coffee Porter
City: San Leandro, CA
The verdict: Holding aloft the torch for the handful of imperial porters we decided to allow into this tasting, it’s Drake’s Jolly Rodger. It’s an imperial coffee porter, but although the coffee is certainly there, it’s actually a note that is easy to confuse during the first pass of a blind tasting. This coffee character has a particularly spicy note, both peppery and almost something cinnamon/cassia-like, which could conceivably make one theorize they were drinking a rum barrel rather than whiskey beer. At the same time, however, Jolly Rodger is only light to moderate in its residual sweetness, showing restraint that allows it to be “rich” rather than simply “sweet.” Flavors of caramel, toffee and light notes of whiskey open up toward coffee and spice on the back end, while booze is well hidden. It doesn’t explode with coffee intensity like some of the other coffee stouts do, but it’s very successful at taking a balanced approach.
24. Avery Brewing Co. Tweak
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: Every year, we think we’re prepared to throw a few Avery barrel-aged stouts into this lineup, and then every year they sneak up and clock us in the head with a truncheon of booze and flavor. We can’t lie; the Uncle Jacob’s in particular overwhelmed tasters during this year’s blind tasting with its booziness, but the (ever-so-slightly) more compromising Tweak was right up our alley. Massively boozy and very, very sweet, it stretches the limits of what a single 12 oz “serving” of barrel-aged stout could reasonably deliver to a single drinker. Decadent flavors of vanilla custard, maple syrup and syrupy mocha are the supporting act to a big barrel presence—there’s no missing that this is a bourbon barrel beer. Interestingly, despite being specifically focused on coffee, it’s not necessarily the operative flavor, because that would be the huge backbone of malt, roast, caramel and booze. This remains not a beer for the faint of heart, but if you have a sweet tooth and can handle the booze, it might very well be your ambrosia.
23. Epic Brewing Co. Big Bad Baptista
City: Salt Lake City, Utah
The verdict: Mexican mocha, straight up. That’s what Big Bad Baptista is, and it’s not pretending to be anything else. This is not beer aspiring toward some kind of subtle, artistic perfection; it’s a people pleaser, pure and simple. It reminds us of a barrel-aged version of Perennial Artisan Ale’s well-liked Abraxas stout, and what it has in common with that beer is how it takes a now-common set of complementary adjuncts (cinnamon, coffee, vanilla, cacao nibs) and simply uses them in a more harmonious way than some of the others. Residual sweetness is moderate, but stops short of being saccharine, and none of the tasters accused the beer of some note of artificiality, which is usually the factor that might bring such a flamboyantly flavored stout down a notch. It’s just a really awesome dessert beer, and likely on well suited to churro dunking. You don’t have to overanalyze it—where the other Baptists are symphonies, this one is a perfectly crafted power pop song.
22. Weyerbacher Sunday Morning Stout
City: Easton, PA
The verdict: Weyerbacher is perennially a solid pick for “underrated brewery” lists, and beers like Sunday Morning Stout are a big part of the reason why. This is just right down the middle of the BBA coffee stout sweet spot, like a somewhat burlier version of the Fremont coffee stout above. Coffee is big and bold on the nose, dominating the proceedings, but in a very enjoyable way. Smoky roast is big on the palate, with a very sizable hit of booziness and dark fruit, in the vein of black cherry. Bourbon is present but not huge, with moderate vanilla. What stands out most may be the sheer maltiness and alcoholic heft, but neither keep the beer from having a silky, luxurious mouthfeel. This is characterful, almost “aggressive” beer, perhaps better suited to Saturday night than Sunday morning, but if it’s your choice for Sunday hair of the dog, we won’t judge you.
21. Orpheus Brewing Abandon All Hope
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: Yowza, folks. This beer is a taste explosion that you would swear was significantly larger even than the listed 14% ABV. Almost overwhelmingly intense, rich and multifaceted, it had one of the highest volumes of pure flavor in the entire tasting. Or to quote one tasting sheet: “A fun experiment in overkill, in a good way.” Practically still and without carbonation, it has a mouthfeel like motor oil, and everything about it just screams “I am huge.” Roast, fudgy chocolate, vanilla and big red fruitiness are riding a tidal wave of booziness and oak, but the whole thing is impressively rounded and reins itself in before going totally off the rails. If you’re seeking something to knock back as a digestif out of a tiny cordial glass, then this is the barrel-aged stout for you. Woe to the person who attempts to drink an entire bottle on their own; if you don’t have friends to share this one with, then make some new friends before you open it.
FYI: If you click on any of the photos you can see a higher resolution image of the bottle.
20. Perennial Artisan Ales Maman
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: Big, burly and rich, Perennial presents us with a stout that is redolent in chocolate and vanilla sweetness. Maman is almost oddly “plain” for what you might expect out of this St. Louis brewery—just a straight-up BBA stout without any other adjuncts or twists—but they presumably tasted it and realized that it didn’t need any other adulterations. This is a very fudgy, cocoa-laden stout with moderate-to-high residual sugar, which makes it very rich and heady stuff; probably something you would share, or at least order in an 8 oz serving. One taster described it as an “RVIS” in his notes, specifying that the V was obviously for “very.” Another thought it had a bit of soy sauce-like umami quality, but that it worked very well in spite of this. Regardless, it is further buoyed by a big barrel presence and lots of vanilla/caramelization, but the chocolatey flavors are doubtless the star of the show.
19. Oskar Blues Rum Barrel Ten FIDY
City: Lyons, CO
The verdict: I was legitimately shocked, moments before I started writing this entry, to look up the ABV of this beer and find that it’s a massive 14.2%. It’s safe to say that the booze of Rum Barrel Ten FIDY is hidden ridiculously well; this is incredibly potent and dangerous stuff. Perhaps that’s partially because this beer leans more on the underlying stout than it does the flavor profile of the rum barrel, but either way, it’s quite the achievement. Thick, positively chewy maltiness and a big charge of roast (which is a signature to every version of Ten FIDY) are supported by bittersweet cocoa and a hint of baking spices and light coconut/toasted marshmallow. To quote one score sheet: “Earthy and oaky, with surprising depth.” Positively luxurious in terms of mouthfeel, you could tell even if you didn’t have taste buds that this was a huge, full-bodied beer. Regular Ten FIDY is a classic of this genre that still holds up very well, but the barrel-aged versions take it to an entirely new level.
18. Fremont Spice Wars Dark Star
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Honestly, who wouldn’t want to drink something called “Spice Wars”? We need more dramatic beer names in this vein: “The Maltaclysm,” maybe? Get back to me, Fremont. This second variant of BBA Dark Star also receives aging in 15-year-old bourbon barrels, but then it becomes all about the unique spice blend: Vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and cloves. What, was no cardamom available? On the nose, the presence of the spices was obvious to all of the tasters, who all enjoyed it immensely: “Very unique, LOVE the nose,” reads one of the score sheets. “Cinnamon, fragrant and sweet baking spices,” reads another. Each individual spice is so well incorporated into this melange that it becomes difficult to pick them out individually. Rather, it’s like something you’d see marketed at a really great bakery as a “molasses spice cookie,” and you’d simply accept that designation. And of course, the real key to it is the exemplary, velvety imperial stout underneath.
17. Fort George Matryoshka
City: Astoria, OR
The verdict: Fort George is a brewery that seems to sneakily do far above average every time they’re in one of these blind tastings, and it’s time we start recognizing them for it. Matryoshka is a pretty classical BBA stout, big on the chocolate impressions, but with a significant charge of candied fruitiness as well. Packing moderate booziness that was noted by all the tasters, it features both milk and dark chocolate notes—almost brownie batter-esque—and a red fruitiness that combine like an impression of chocolate-covered cherries. The booze is slightly bracing, but it gives the stout a necessary backbone to avoid coming off as dessert beer. All in all, an excellent take on Russian imperial stout with a very balanced approach, including a moderately assertive influence from the bourbon barrels. It deftly balances being both characterful and inviting to drinkers just beginning to experiment with this style.
16. River North BBA Nightmare Fuel
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: Here’s a perfect illustration of the way a whiskey barrel can transform the overall flavor profile of a beer. When we tasted the non-barrel-aged version of this beer last month, we were both intrigued and overwhelmed by the utterly massive charge of coffee in it—Nightmare Fuel was an easy winner for “most coffee flavor,” but it was just too much to jibe with everything else going on in this 14.8% ABV imperial stout. Put that beer in a barrel, though, and everything just gets smoothed out, so to speak. The richness of bourbon, vanilla, toffee and drying quality of oak now work as a counterbalance to the still impressive coffee. At the same time, the new balancing act allows more distinct notes to come forward: Bittersweet baker’s chocolate, dark fruitiness and moderate booze. The fact that we say “moderate” when it’s a 14.8% ABV beer is also impressive in its own right. River North’s Mr. Sandman was our #1 beer in the non-barrel imperial stout tasting, and with the BA version of Nightmare Fuel they’ve found their way into the top 20 of an even larger, tougher field. Stands to reason that these guys know their stouts.
15. Funky Buddha Last Buffalo in the Park
City: Oakland Park, FL
The verdict: Some breweries are good at brewing with “gimmicky” adjuncts, and some are great at it. We had some coconut beers in the course of this tasting that were just syrupy sweet, artificial tasting messes, but this is how you do barrel-aged coconut beer right. It’s no surprise, given that we also loved Funky Buddha’s Last Snow coconut porter when we blind tasted porters a couple years ago, that the imperialized, barrel-aged version is also spectacular. From one score sheet: “Sweet milk chocolate and coconut aroma, with acute coffee bitterness; finishes beautifully.” You know it’s good when even the tasters who aren’t big fans of coconut in general are quickly won over. Moderately sweet, it knows where to draw the line in terms of residual sugar, and the coffee really helps in terms of balance. These guys might have the dubious honor of being the best coconut beer producers in the country. If that’s your jam, you owe it to yourself to seek out this bottle.
14. Hoppin’ Frog Rocky Mountain B.O.R.I.S.
City: Akron, OH
The verdict: If there’s one truism that was shown both by the non-barrel-aged tasting and by this tasting, it’s that Hoppin’ Frog is making exceptional imperial stouts, and they have been for a long time. B.O.R.I.S. and its big sister D.O.R.I.S. are the kinds of stouts that every beer geek in the Midwest has tasted at some point, but they may be too familiar to get people excited. Well they should, because they’re both still great beers that perform very well in blind tastings. On the barrel side, though, it was the “Rocky Mountain” variants that caught our taste buds, aged in used whiskey barrels that contained an American single malt whiskey rather than the more ubiquitous bourbon. A big charge of roast is present in this one, a bit of “old school imperial stout” that was very welcome. Slight red fruitiness gives way to mild hops and bittersweet dark chocolate. The American single malt barrels are milder and less wild than you get out of many of the bourbon and rye barrels, which imparts a very smooth, approachable mouthfeel and light flavors of vanilla, honey and oak that allow the stout underneath to shine through. At “only” 9.4% ABV, it’s significantly lighter in gravity than some of the others, but there’s no shortage of character here.
13. Clown Shoes The Exorcism of Rachel Wall
City: Ipwsich, MA
The verdict: It can be sort of difficult to determine the small variations between various Clown Shoes beers when the brewery does alternate names/tweaks for various state-only releases, but this particular version of their “Exorcism” series features rum barrels and vanilla beans, and was released in Massachusetts. It’s another example of how variable these rum barrel stouts can be—some of them taste like blackstrap molasses, and others are much more subtle, or easily mistaken for whiskey barrels. This one is in the latter camp, with a barrel presence that isn’t all that bombastic, but instead gently supports a big, rich imperial stout. The vanilla is appreciably there without being artificial or distracting, and as it often does, the vanilla helps amplify the sweet, decadent chocolate notes. This one is milk chocolatey, smooth and creamy, with a firm roast and touch of light coffee. It actually drinks really, really easily, at least when positioned in the middle of this kind of lineup. Clown Shoes has an under-the-radar way of making exemplary barrel-aged stouts of all kinds, but this is one of their more subtle offshoots. We can dig that.
12. Fiction Beer Co. BBA Malice & Darkness
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: One of the ways it’s easy to know that Denver is a great beer city is the fact that in any given tasting, they usually have a few representatives in the ranked portion … but it’s often completely different breweries. Which is to say, seemingly any given Denver brewery is capable of making great beers that perform well in blind tastings, including the literary themed Fiction Beer Co., which I discovered the last time I visited the city in Sept. to profile several up-and-coming breweries. This inky stout is packed with roast and coffee on the nose, with the suggestion of sweetened espresso and deeply caramelized sugar. Dark chocolate is big on the palate, with a touch of smoke and a slightly vinous, winey element of dark fruit and oak. The degree of coffee character is particularly impressive, given that this stout doesn’t actually have a coffee addition as far as we can tell. Booze is impressively well hidden, especially for 14% ABV. This beer is packing a whole lot of character, but no element is ever out of balance.
11. Good People BBA El Gordo
City: Birmingham, AL
The verdict: This is one of those beers where pretty much every variation is equally amazing, and you should seek them out immediately. The BBA version of El Gordo, a top 10 beer in the non-barrel-aged tasting, may be even better. Roast-forward and semi-sweet, it features notes of deep caramelization and toffee, coffee and dark, bittersweet chocolate. Interestingly, there’s even a touch of piney hops in this one, which is a note that very rarely managed to be noticeable in any of these barrel-aged imperial stouts. It’s a very well-balanced offering overall, with all its elements in harmony. Roast, vanilla and dried fruit are supported by the same velvety, silky texture present in the other El Gordo, which I’m beginning to think of as this beer’s calling card. Never lose track of that fact that when all other elements are equal, mouthfeel and texture are very important tiebreakers as far as imperial stouts are concerned. That’s one of the areas where Good People are killing it on all versions of El Gordo.
10. Deep River Brewing Co. Collaboration Without Representation
City: Clayton, NC
The verdict: Something to keep in mind about the results of Paste blind tastings: These are not BJCP affairs. We’re not trying to pick which beers best fit arbitrary style guidelines. The beers that score well, often score well for entirely different, individual reasons. Extreme complexity is just as valid a reason to get a high score as simply being a straight-up crowd-pleaser. And this barrel-aged stout from North Carolina’s Deep River is the definition of “crowd pleaser.” This is not a stout trying to be the end-all, be-all of the beer industry; it just tastes amazing. An “imperial chocolate milk stout with coffee,” we’ve rarely come across a beer with such an accurate description. The beer smells like a pot of fresh brewed coffee, topped with a cap of steamed milk and some milk chocolate syrup. The barrel is judicious, supplying some caramel/vanilla that beefs up the other flavors, but ultimately this beer is driven by a really great imperial milk stout and a tantalizing coffee addition. There’s even a bit of complexity in the form of some dark, plummy fruitiness. Regardless, this feels like the kind of beer that would have people driving cross country to buy it if it had a Tree House or Hill Farmstead label on it. If you love sweeter, coffee infused stouts, put it on your list.
9. Hoppin’ Frog Rocky Mountain D.O.R.I.S.
City: Akron, OH
The verdict: Everything I said above in praise of Rocky Mountain B.O.R.I.S. just goes doubly for D.O.R.I.S.—it’s a shame that the release of T.O.R.I.S. is still so recent that there isn’t a barrel-aged version of it out there! That one will be a monster when it arrives. Like B.O.R.I.S., it features a big, firm roastiness, which made one of the tasters write that this one was “bringing the STOUT.” Also present is a dark, chewy malt profile and lots of caramelization, followed by an unexpectedly strong charge of American hops. As in the Good People beer a few spaces above this, it’s unusual to have a notable strand of hop-derived flavors in a barrel-aged stout, but it really works nicely as a balancing aspect here. These are big, assertive flavors, with a thick mouthfeel but somewhat gentler, milder barrel character. That in general is something we liked about these “Rocky Mountain” variants; they retain their inherent roast and stoutiness with a gentle, honeyed barrel character.
8. Westbrook 5th Anniversary (Cabernet barrel)
City: Mount Pleasant, SC
The verdict: Apparently the original, non-barrel-aged version of this raspberry imperial stout was rather divisive among Westbrook fans, but whatever issues they might have had with it have since been transformed beautifully after some red wine barrel aging. There’s no missing the raspberry on the nose—fresh, bright and genuine, with no hint of artificiality. Reading some of the other impressions of drinkers online, it seems that many of them perceived this beer as more strongly representing the raspberry flavor that in the original 5th Anniversary—perhaps a positive effect of the wine barrel aging? To us, it tastes quite a lot like an expensive dark chocolate bar with raspberry bits in it, with the added benefit of being 10% ABV. The raspberries and oak flavors mingle with bright tartness and acidity, but likely not quite enough to have drinkers call it a true “sour.” Dark fruitiness and chocolate are weighted in perfect balance with one another, with just enough oak to know that it’s been in a barrel. It’s hard for us to imagine how it could have turned out any closer to Westbrook’s vision, and it’s the top-ranked beer on this list to be made with fruit.
7. Perennial Artisan Ales BA Sump
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: The non-barrel-aged version of Perennial’s imperial coffee stout, Sump, ended up at #4 out of 102 on the last list. This one? #7 out of 144. That’s some consistency right there, folks. There’s a reason why we routinely expect this brewery to be among the best in the world in these blind tastings. This beer was apparently aged in barrels that previously held that old bartender’s friend, Rittenhouse Rye, and perhaps that contributes a bit to the herbal, slightly spicy quality of the stout. I’m starting to think, writing these entries, that rye barrels might be well suited to coffee stouts in particular, as the spicy qualities of both play nicely together. Regardless, BA Sump is big coffee on the nose, roasty and slightly sweetened with milk chocolate, in exactly the same way as the non-BA version. There’s a whole lot of coffee here—one taster’s notes wonder if it’s too much, but then back down from that assertion. This is definitely a coffee-lover’s barrel-aged stout, and a remarkably tasty one at that.
6. Epic Brewing Co. Double Barrel Big Bad Baptist
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: The “double barrel” aspect of this beer is actually a reference to the coffee—like regular Big Bad Baptist, it’s aged in bourbon barrels, but in this beer the coffee beans were also bourbon barrel aged. For whatever reason, this seems to amplify the strength of the coffee note on the nose, surpassing even the already coffee-heavy original. It also strikes us as a bit sweeter and more viscous and syrupy than the original Baptist, again presumably due to the bourbon barrel-aged coffee beans. From one score sheet: “Thank you. Smoky, roasty, puts the stout in imperial stout.” As in the regular Baptist, the “whiskey” character is significantly more subtle than you find in a lot of these beers, hinting at nuances of oak, vanilla and toffee. Epic is very skilled with putting just the right touch of the barrel on these beers. Of the three Baptists (which all made the top 50!), this is our favorite—a more decadent version of the original that is a bit more complex than the very fun but more ostentatious Baptista. This stuff is just plain great.
5. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: Well, well. Whad’ya know? It may be Anheuser owned, but you’ve got to give huge props when a classic of the genre—one of the most important barrel-aged beers of all time, if not the most important—proves that it can still hang in a blind tasting in 2017. Very big, very rich and very sweet, BCBS pulls no punches and takes no prisoners—it has the type of flavor profile that says “Either you like this, or you don’t, and I don’t care which it is.” The first line about it in the first tasting sheet is “Classic bourbon barrel stout.” From another: “Massively rich, viscous mouthfeel.” Moderate roast and fudgy chocolate are present, but this is definitely a stout that is all about the barrel character. Massive oaky aromatics and flavors give way to toasted marshmallow, vanilla, caramel and spice. There’s also a bit of more viniferous character, a red fruity note that makes it unique among the other stouts that are very whiskey-forward. It’s definitely a stout for those beer geeks who love the flavor profile that a long bourbon barrel aging brings with it, and we must concede that it’s still among the very best at the world in setting the standard of what BBA imperial stout is all about. Kudos to Goose Island.
4. Funky Buddha Morning Wood
City: Oakland Park, FL
The verdict: This beer is actually listed as the #1 “American porter” in the world on Beer Advocate, which is of course absurd. At 12% ABV, this thing is an imperial stout, and what an imperial stout. It’s actually the imperialized version of Funky Buddha’s delicious Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, then taken and given the bourbon barrel treatment. The nose is huge, full of sweet coffee, maple, spice, smoke and a touch of oak. To quote from one score sheet: “Big coffee, then chocolate cake with spices.” Or another, slightly more succinct: “WAFFLES!” This beer is on the sweeter side, but it earns its decadence with malt complexity and balance between all the competing flavors in play. Nothing stands out too strongly, to the detriment of the others. The coffee, maple, whiskey and savory aspect are all weighed into the perfect ratio, with enough residual sugar to make it fun, but not too much to make it cloying. This is the kind of concept that Funky Buddha seems to do so well—a big, crazy, decadent beer that you’d expect to go terribly wrong, looking at the ingredients on the label, but they somehow pull it off.
3. Oskar Blues Java BBA Ten FIDY
City: Lyons, CO
The verdict: There was a discussion we often had during these tastings—just because you put a beer in a barrel, that shouldn’t automatically give it “bonus points” and increase its rating, as seems to happen on any app such as Untappd. The same is true of adding an adjunct like coffee; it doesn’t always make the base beer objectively better … except when it does. And it does here, because the “Java” version of BBA Ten FIDY is absolutely delectable. It actually doesn’t go overboard with the coffee, and the addition is probably a bit more subtle than some drinkers would like or expect. But the thing is, Ten FIDY is already such a roast-driven imperial stout that the coffee addition marries beautifully to the existing roast profile and simply makes it more complex and interesting. Coffee melds with booze to create a sweet, Kahlua-like profile, but there’s also quite a lot of dark fruitiness in this stout as well. From one score sheet: “Deep, roasty coffee, and chocolate raspberry.” Moderately sweet, it both packs a wallop in terms of volume of flavor and is wonderfully complex. We wish this beer was available year round.
2. Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery Spirit Beast
City: Athens, OH
The verdict: This is your complexity champion, right here. Holy cow, what a beer this is. We’re lucky to have gotten Jackie O’s into this tasting, as they haven’t always been represented in our blind tastings in the past, but it’s easy to say why they’ve been called one of the most underrated breweries in the country. This beer is nothing short of a revelation, and it would be hailed as great coming from any brewery in the country. It’s a staggeringly complex mixture of five different stouts, plus a quadrupel, blended and then aged in a variety of barrels before being blended again. Say what? Who the hell puts this much work into one beer? What kind of mad geniuses are running this asylum?
Regardless, the beer presents with a startling array of different flavors. Vinous and slightly winey, it’s also redolent in cocoa and dark fruit notes of plum and currant. Booze is moderate and makes its presence felt, but that can’t detract from an absolutely lovely, silky texture and extremely full body. Residual sweetness somehow manages to be only moderate, exactly where it should be for maximum effect. Pretty much every single tasting sheet contains the word “complex” at some point. This is a beer you need time and focus to dissect. It demands you pay attention; it would be impossible to idly drink this.
1. Fremont Brewing Co. BBA Dark Star
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: We’ve finally reached the top of the mountain: The epitome of barrel-aged stout. And perhaps fittingly, it’s just a “plain” old bourbon barrel-aged stout that takes home the championship. No spices, no cacao nibs, no vanilla beans. No coffee, either—in a mirror image of the Oskar Blues beer, this time it’s the original version of BBA Dark Star that is superior. But that doesn’t mean this beer doesn’t have unique aspects. In fact, the way BBA Dark Star is blended for consistency and depth of flavor is interesting: It’s actually three different batches of the base beer, aged for 18, 12 and 8 months respectively before being blended together. In doing so, Fremont is presumably able to achieve a profile that combines the best aspects of both shorter and longer aging periods.
On the nose, this beer is burly, boozy but ultimately inviting. The barrel comes through in a big way, throwing waves of rich caramelized sugar and vanilla custard, along with solid roast. The oatmeal in the grist helps contribute to a luxurious, silky texture—as we noted earlier, each Dark Star was among the best of the tasting in terms of mouthfeel. On the palate, deep, rich molasses sweetness gives way to charred oak, vanilla and maple syrup, and what one of the tasting sheets refers to as “velvety heaven.” It’s simply a gorgeous beer, and one that shows a barrel-aging program that has invested years into making the best possible stout that they can. Everyone pay your dues to Fremont on this one: They are the barrel-aged stout masters.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and his liver is glad to be moving on to some lower ABV blind tastings. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer content.