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.