Every now and then, a new product comes along that makes you ask “Why didn’t this already exist?” There’s not a ton that motivates me to write stand-alone beer reviews these days, but something as elemental as a new imperial version of one of the country’s most style-defining beers is just such an occasion.
And that goes doubly in this case, because I have always wondered why a beer matching this description didn’t already exist. Left Hand Brewing Co. is an anomaly in the American craft beer scene for one reason above all others: Their flagship beer, the beer that keeps the company going, is a milk stout.
Lots of breweries have porters or stouts in their lineup, although as we’ve written about in the past, non-adjunct, non-imperial American stout is something of an endangered species these days. But almost no sizeable American brewery has ever had a porter or stout as their top-selling cash cow. Porter and stout are typically secondary or tertiary players—they have dedicated fans, but most every regional American brewery has a top seller/volume brand that is either IPA, pale ale, lager or even kettle sour. Few have ever managed to define the brewery’s image by selling that much stout, especially over the course of decades. Only two really come to mind: North Carolina’s Duck Rabbit, and Left Hand itself.
So with that said, I always wondered: With Left Hand Milk Stout being such a style-defining example, and the Nitro version effectively setting the mold for canned, nitrogenated stouts in the USA, why has there never been a year-round imperial version of that same beer? Does that not seem like the most obvious idea in the world? What Left Hand fan wouldn’t want to try that beer? It seems like it would sell itself. And it’s not that Left Hand hasn’t made plenty of imperial stouts, mind you—but why not an imperial version of the flagship in the core rotation? The only reason that comes to mind is that the brewery perhaps didn’t want to water down the cache of the original in doing so, or worried that imperial milk stout sales might cannibalize sales of their own flagship. Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve thought about whenever revisiting the iconic Left Hand Milk Stout.
Note: The brewery does produce other Nitro imperial stouts, such as Wake Up Dead and Galactic Cowboy, but they aren’t milk stouts.
Now, however, we’ve finally got that imperial version, albeit with the addition of a coffee element. Left Hand Bittersweet Nitro is referred to by the brewery as “the ultimate expression of our classic milk stout.” It’s been upped in ABV modestly, from 6% in the original to 8.9% here. The biggest change is the addition of Indonesian and Ethiopian coffee, which Left Hand says “combines with the super smooth mouthfeel of nitrogen” to create “a chocolate-covered espresso bean that melts in your mouth.”
That sounds lovely, so let’s get to tasting and see how they did.
On the nose, things here are promising: I get lots of roast and sweet coffee, with hints of bell pepper that pop out to me in certain coffee varietals, along with delicate elements of spice. It does indeed smell creamy, which can be a difficult thing to imagine, as “creaminess” is more a sensation than a flavor, but the nose contains that unmistakable lactose vibe. There’s a slight spice that evokes a bit of cinnamon or cardamom, likely from the coffee once again, which gives it a vibe somewhere between Turkish coffee and iced mocha. All in all, a nice nose.
On the palate, however, this beer isn’t quite what I hoped it might be. It’s very creamy in texture, as you would expect, but simultaneously is lacking in body for the ABV, which seems to be a common thing in higher gravity Nitro beers—they’re slickly textured, but sometimes lacking real weight. More notable, though, is the dimension of coffee flavor, which is very prominent and surprisingly astringent from sip to sip. There is indeed considerable bitterness to the coffee as well—”bittersweet” was a well chosen name. In general, it’s less the sweet/rich coffee concentrate/cold brew profile that one might have been expecting, and instead quite roast driven. That’s a quality I often like, but here there’s an emphasis on the more “burnt” or ashy notes, which can overwhelm the residual sweetness that does exist. In the regular Left Hand Milk Stout, I typically taste quite a bit of red fruitiness, but that’s also more difficult to pick up here.
All in all, I think the coffee has just overpowered some of the more subtle elements of what might have been a really interesting stout. It’s not objectively unpleasant, and those who love the more intensely bitter roastiness of this coffee profile may end up really loving it. I, on the other hand, will continue to wonder what an unadulterated, imperial version of this classic milk stout might taste like.
Brewery: Left Hand Brewing Co.
City: Longmont, CO
Style: Imperial milk stout
Availability: 16 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.