It goes without saying that dark beers were a big part of the Borefts Beer Festival 2013, De Molen being particularly known for its imperial stouts. Just when you thought they had run out of things to do with Hel & Verdoemenis, along comes an Eisbock version, freeze-distilled from my favourite barrel-aged iteration, Wild Turkey. The result is terrifyingly drinkable for 25% ABV: a mild alcoholic warmth but lots of silky milk chocolate added to café crème. Supremely smooth and hard to tear myself away from.
Perhaps a little more orthodox was Moord & Brand, 9.8% ABV and presented in a number of barrel-aged versions. The first I tried was the bourbon barrel one, which was quite a serious affair: no fun chocolate here, just a heavy dry bitter grown-up stout overlaid with the woody sap and sour mash from the cask. Its balsamico edition was more interesting, juxtaposing the incongruous elements of coffee roast with the savoury tang of balsamic oil. There's a bit of dark chocolate buried deep here and just about detectable under the resin. Another one for the more-interesting-than-nice file.
Sticking with De Molen, there was Zwaaien & Zwieren, a 12.6% ABV stout given the brettanomyces treatment for a big dollop of funk in with the coffee. There's a sweet vinous quality too, and all the flavours sit completely separate from each other, queuing patiently to be tasted in turn.
One of my favourites from the brewery was a special edition, released in the festival's dying hours. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a cherry-infused imperial stout of 11% ABV (based on Hel & Verdoemenis, I believe) though almost spirituous in alcoholic heat. The cherry notes rip through it, pulling liqueur chocolates behind them. Another dangerously sinkable powerhouse masterfully put together.
Neither of the last two were on the official listings, but the two that caught my attention in advance were both versions of Hot & Spicy, a De Molen imperial stout which has been around a while but which I've never had the opportunity to try and sounds exactly like my sort of thing. Version 3 came out at 10.2% ABV and is very much an imperial stout first, lots of dry roast and even some sourness tempered against sweeter caramel and chocolate. The chilli takes a little bit of time to come through but when it does it bursts powerfully onto the palate and wafts hotly into the back of the nose. Stimulating.
I suspected that the other, super-limited, version of Hot & Spicy would taste much the same. There was just one keg of this and it was poured only for the final hour of each session so was my valedictory beer on the Saturday. The difference is that it's brewed with naga jolokia, one of the world's most powerful chilli peppers, but what difference would that make once diluted in strong full-flavoured beer? It smelled innocent enough: the mild sourness of dark fruit, some cherries. This turns to a candy sweetness on tasting, briefly. Very briefly. There follows a red hot combo move that simultaneously scorches the back of the throat and side of the tongue before a rising pepperiness occupies the entire palate and fires off waves of endorphins. A little of this goes a long way. At least as far back to Leiden in my case.
De Molen weren't the only brewery to bring chilli beer to the show. Fyne Ales had one too: Smoked Chilli Dark Ale, a collaboration with BrewDog. Neither the chilli nor the smoke get much of a look-in however. This is thoroughly hopped, dominated by acid, acrid hops; all grass and metal. They should have called it a black IPA and left it at that. Fyne's own Sublime Stout was much better. It's 6.8% ABV and a little pale -- perhaps more red than black. There's no shortage of hop here, but they're the less severe lemon sherbet kind and they perform a tag-team act with the dark roasted elements to create a beer that delivers zingy refreshment and mellow richness in one glass. It is aptly named.
Staying in Britain but moving down the map, Thornbridge had brought a sumptuously decadent spiced-rum-infused porter called Kacho. Sweet and creamy with a very distinct rum element, for a Jamaican coffee effect. There was also a fast moving Imperial Raspberry Stout which was strong, dark but all raspberry: the roasty dryness working in a bizarrely complementary way with the raspberry tartness.
I couldn't pass by a dark offering from The Kernel and they had a Speyside-barrel-aged Imperial Brown Stout of 10.3% ABV. It's definitely more black than brown, however, with a blend of black coffee and scotch in the aroma. I could tell that there was a lovely full and sweet stout under the barrel effects but I couldn't get past the single-malt sickliness that the Scotch imparted. I'd definitely prefer this in an unadorned form.
Poor old Emelisse had a hill to climb when they brought along something called Crème Brûlée Stout. Southern Tier's beer of the same name is one of my standouts of the last year and comparisons were inevitable. Emelisse's effort is decent, but it doesn't taste as much like crème brûlée. There's an odd vegetal spinach bitterness from the hops in with the sickly cream-and-brown-sugar and it all just fails to hang together properly. I had more fun with their eisbock: another 25% ABV beer, called XXV in case the nose-hair-singeing aroma didn't give away the strength. It's incredibly hot and scorches down the throat, coating the oesphagous in a mixture of napalm and chocolate syrup. There's a small hint of hop bitters in there too, a touch of Fernet Stock or Unicum. In a lot of ways it's reminiscent of BrewDog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin but with better flavours to balance the alcohol.
It's back to the spice rack for the final black beer, from Denmark's Amager in collaboration with Florida's Cigar City and with the unnecessarily elaborate name of Xiquic and the Hero Twins. 9% ABV, infused with peppercorns, aged on cedar, and you can taste all of that. It starts with a big hit of green and black peppercorns, coats the palate unctuously, and is infused from front to back with a heady humidor spiciness from the cedar that I would expect to jar with the other elements but works beautifully alongside them. A definite demonstration that bizarrely elaborate recipes can have successful pay-offs, just like elegantly simple ones.