My Three Beers examines trends and themes in the Pacific Northwest beer scene through the blurry lens of a three-beer buzz.
*See also: Are Beer Festivals a Rip?
Like IPAs made for export to India, Imperial Stouts were loaded with hops to preserve the beer as it made its way from London to Czarist Russia. Anyone who's had a Guinness knows that stouts are a flavorful breed as is, meaning the bitter hops arrived onto an already crowded flavor scene.
Yet the malty, hoppy, "imperial" variety of stout was tremendous, ensuring that long after Lenin took power in Moscow, this style would endure.Oddly enough, in these post-Cold War times, it's been the vaguely Bolshevik Rogue Brewing that has produced the Northwest vanguard of Imperial Stout, the straight-forward and excellent XS Imperial. Still, that's by no means the only game in the Northwest, with some brewers putting delicious spins on the old theme to make the traditionally intimidating style more approachable, or, dare we say it, proletariat.
At Fremont Brewery's new, sun-splashed taproom (in the same building as the old location), a steep $6 will get you a goblet of Dark Star Imperial Oatmeal Stout, with the option of nitro carbonation. I went for the nitro on my first visit, and was so impressed I returned with my in-laws the next day for an encore.
As Guinness has proven beyond doubt, nitro complements a stout's already creamy style well, and Dark Star is particularly creamy thanks to the oats used in the recipe. All combined, the result is an outstandingly silky drink. The beer itself is a well-done and standard imperial stout, with the trademark malts and bitters achieving a nice balance. But back to the feel of this beer: can I call it sexy? It seemed to defy gravity as I sloshed it around in my mouth, and I withstood the urge to gulp down the beer because of it. No doubt, it's a pricey brew. But I found it to be well worth a second try.
Also on the pricier side of things is Widmer Brother's Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout '12, part of the Portland brewery's Alchemy Project and on sale by the 22-ounce bottle at Wine World in Wallingford ($12.99). While you wouldn't know it from the bottle, the alchemy project line is intended to be kept on the shelf for a while to allow the beer to mature. Alas, I popped open my February-born brew around Halloween. And while I can't attest to how the raspberry stout will taste by the end of Romney's first term (here's hoping I jinxed it!), the beer drank just fine in October 2012.
Giving it a name like Raspberry Russian is almost a disservice to the beer, as the fruitiness behaves so well, keeping to itself in the background. But it does leave its mark: if you're one who equates drinking stouts to sipping on molasses, this could be the stout for you. The raspberry give the malts a lighter taste than is normal, and the hops finish strongly but cleanly. Of all three beers reviewed here, this one was the most apt to let me forget I was drinking an Imperial Stout.
Which brings us to beer number three, Airways' Final Departure (also bought at Wine World, 22 oz., $7.99). Airways Brewing Company opened in Kent in 2010, and while I'm not overly familiar with their beer, one thing is immediately obvious: these guys are hop-heads. While the Final Departure's stats aren't listed on Airways' website, the brewery's IPA clocks in at "99+" IBU; the imperial stout stands on similarly bitter ground.
Again, this beer was meant to be kept on the shelf - "Designed to opened just before the end of the world on Dec. 20, 2012" - and again, obviously, I cracked it early. Unlike the Widmer, Airways' Imperial Stout draws all of your attention, so intense are the hops. Sure, it hits all the points a stout needs to - smooth feel, malty taste - but have no illusion: hops are the main attraction here, bar none.
London beer critic Cyril Ray described one vintage Imperial Stout he tried as "a smooth, rich, velvety depth-charge of a drink" with a "sweetness only of the malt" and "the bitter tang of the hops."
All three of these beers, to varying extent, stay true to that description.
The first Imperial Russian Stout was brewed by Barclay Perkins, and Ray reported in the 1960s how close the beer came to becoming obsolete - Imperial Stouts had been "under sentence of death as being too expensive to make and not in wide enough demand."
The expense may yet be an issue for this niche; the demand is not.
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