I have a weird relationship with what you might call “prestige” imperial stouts.
As a staff writer at Paste who has been covering the beer scene for years, these types of highly sought-after beers occasionally find their way to me, whether specifically solicited or not. It’s a perk that pretty much any professional beer writer likely enjoys—we all find ourselves receiving things in the mail that most die-hard customers would be camped in a line waiting to purchase. And with some writers, I believe this particular perk has a tendency to remove them from the memory/reality of how inaccessible many of these beers really are to the average drinker … and how ultimately irrelevant many of them are as a result.
It’s as simple as this: If it’s rare enough, and thereby expensive enough to preclude almost anyone from obtaining it, can it really be said to exist at all? If no one outside of the traders spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a bottle are obtaining and drinking these beers, then why should the average customer—the people keeping the brewery in business all year round through six-packs of their flagships or year-rounders—even care that it exists?
This is why, if access to a barrel-aged prestige stout (and they’re almost always prestige stouts) is prohibitively limiting, my interest in that product tends to immediately dry up. Waxing poetic about a bottle of beer that 99.99% of the readership will never even physically touch doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. Better to write about things that people actually have a chance of encountering in the wild.
This is how I typically feel when it comes to prestige stouts from companies like Iowa’s Toppling Goliath. They’re acknowledged as masters of the barrel-aged stout world (few would dispute this), and the demand for yearly releases like Assassin and Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout has pushed the fervor of traders into a realm that makes the prestige stouts of yore—things like Three Floyds Dark Lord or Founders CBS—look like a passing fancy in comparison. Look online at the resale markets to see just how crazy the numbers get—a beer like Assassin fetches more than $200 on the low end, with prices that can easily hit $1,000 for special variants or bundles. It’s a comical level of affluence that puts these beers outside the realm of what almost anyone would dare pay, even if they can afford it.
Unfortunately, the most relevant side effect of those resale prices is that it would seem to normalize the idea of outlandish pricing to such a degree that even the host brewery gets in on the action in its initial pricing. You can decide for yourself whether Toppling Goliath charging $50 per bottle of Assassin, as they have for the last few years, is “fair” in terms of pricing, but it’s undeniably part of what pushes the resale market into such absurd territory and ultimately makes these beers inaccessible to all but the obsessive traders. Nor is that kind of pricing limited to just the likes of Assassin, as a simple trip to the current Toppling Goliath e-store will show you. Want a growler fill of Mornin’ Delight? Sure, that’s $60. Is that too good a deal for you? Well, we’ve also got an $80 growler of Term Oil 19-C, if that’s rich enough for your blood. Existing alongside $17 growler fills of IPA, it can’t help but look a little absurd.
Thankfully, there are other ways to approximate the experience, which brings us (finally) to the actual title of this post: The new Melvin Brewing/Toppling Goliath collaboration beer Vladimir Gluten. This is a barrel-aged imperial stout, aged for a full year in bourbon barrels before secondary aging on toasted cacao nibs and vanilla bean. It represents a considerably more accessible way to sample the kind of mythical stouts the average consumer can never obtain, given that most places seem to be selling Vladimir Gluten for around $11.99 per 16 oz can. That ain’t exactly cheap, but at least it’s within the bounds of reality, right?
It should be noted that this is obviously a collaboration brew, and it’s the Melvin logo that headlines the can. Melvin is a brewery that we typically associate with IPA more than big stouts, and they’ve produced some superlative hoppy beers in the past, although enthusiasm for the brewery was dented in recent years by sexual harassment allegations against a Melvin brewer that led to numerous bars boycotting the brewery’s products in 2018. It’s hard to say how much of that vitriol still exists toward the brand, but given Vladimir Gluten’s Toppling Goliath connection, you can bet that the beer geeks will be curious.
Let’s give it a taste and find out for ourselves: How does the latest stout from this hype factory hold up to the weight of expectations?
On the nose, the first thing I note here is a somewhat more subtle and repressed profile than I was expecting. After a year in bourbon barrels, one sort of expects this 12% ABV stout to leap out of the glass at you, but it presents a bit more delicately than that, with notes of toasted dark bread, coconut and cacao nib nuttiness. There’s hints of booze there, but this isn’t an alcohol, oak or bourbon bomb on the nose. Nor does it give the impression of big sweetness or richness, per se—it seems balanced between slight fruity impressions (raspberry), hints of oak and booze, and very dark chocolate.
On the palate, the same holds true—this is a considerably more composed beer than the rowdy monster I expected to be the most likely outcome. It’s thick and fudgy, but not very pronounced in terms of residual sweetness. Rather, it’s deeply infused with the nuttier, more bittersweet side of chocolate, which it’s no doubt getting from those toasted cacao nibs, and is supported by moderate roastiness and hints of very dark berry fruitiness and vanilla. There’s some oakiness, likewise, but it’s not particularly wood or bourbon forward, especially for the length of time it spent in the barrel. I can scarcely believe I find myself saying this, but Vladimir Gluten strikes me as the rare BBA stout that could maybe use slightly more sweetness in order to round it out—as is, it has a mouth-drying quality from the wood that I think might be balanced with a bit more overt sweetness. Still, as on the nose, the booze is very well hidden, and it drinks pretty easily aside from the drying quality on the back end.
All in all, this is a rather sophisticated way to do this style of beer—less decadent and desserty than the pastry stouts that have been dominating much of the space, and less dominated by the barrel than many of the other BA prestige stouts. The balance isn’t quite perfect, but at a reasonable price point, it doesn’t have to be. Turns out that when people can afford your beer, they’re more likely to simply enjoy it.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.