01 October 2018

Dark twists

"Oak smoked imperial wheat stout". Words to conjure with. This is Surround, from Stillwater Artisanal of Connecticut, a brewer I know more from their collaborative works with European brewers. The first impression is what one would expect: a dense and gloopy beer, slipping silkily into the glass and forming a dark tan head on top of the bubbles. The aroma is not especially smoky, but it's clear that it's 10% ABV: mixing liquorice, espresso and dark rum.

The coffee bitterness is dialled back in the flavour, present only at the very end. Before that there's dark chocolate and strong herbs: liquorice again, accompanied by aniseed and sweeter basil. There's a serious smoothness to the texture, which I'm guessing is the wheat's input, and while it's enjoyable I got the impression that it's muted some sharper elements that might make this a better and more assertive beer.

Though undoubtedly well-made and high quality, there's a certain lack of oompf. The smoke in particular is more subtle than I'd have liked, relegated to a background performance where it could have played a starring role. I give this a guarded thumbs-up: fans of strong stout won't be disappointed. It's not best of breed, however.

Still, I'm always up for someone messing around with strong dark beer. I think it suits the format much better than doing it to pale and/or hoppy ones. Let's see what else is in the notebook along these lines.

Crooked Stave's strikingly-named Nightmare on Brett showed up on tap at UnderDog earlier this year. It's a Bretted imperial stout, aged in whiskey barrels, and this edition came with added cherries. There's a lovely old-leather aroma, with just a subtle hint of sweeter cherry. The flavour begins on a rich dark chocolate note that would be enough for any imperial stout but then proceeds to sour cherry before ending on a deliciously tannic grape finish. There's a subtle but present funk, giving you all the benefits of Brettanomyces but with enough other flavours to keep it from dominating the taste. I could have sipped this one all night, finding new things each time.

I've mentioned before the fun phenomenon of random suitcase bottles showing up in UnderDog. An employee of Two Brothers Brewery in Illinois was in a while back, bearing a bottle of another 9%+ ABV cherry-infused imperial stout, Cherry Northwind. This was simpler: I guess lacking the complexity brought by the Brett in the other one. While surprisingly fizzy, it was also thick and syrupy, mixing soft chocolate with boozy cherry liqueur. I'm a sucker for those cherry liqueur chocolates so a beer that tastes like them absolutely gets my vote, regardless of how fizzy it is. Others might be disappointed that what was probably a very decent base imperial stout has been pastried-up somewhat by the fruit. I'll have to wait until a bottle of straight Northwind comes down the stairs from Dame Street.

We return to Europe and craaank the ABV up to 12.5% for the finisher. Norwegian brewer Lervig have given this the stark name of Coconuts, and boy is it coconutty. From the headless body comes a concentrated oily coconut aroma, rising next to rich and sweet chocolate. Comparing it to a dark Bounty Bar is an unavoidable cliché, but that's exactly how it smells, and like nothing else. The chocolate, surprisingly, is to the fore in the flavour. The coconut, still distinct, provides the afterbuzz. For all the alcohol it doesn't taste hot, certainly when compared to the lighter Cherry Northwind -- just a cheeky Tia Maria kick is all the alcohol has to add to the picture. This is very much one of those one-dimensional flavoured novelty beers that are just a joy to drink. Big but not clever. Very tasty, though.

If anyone out there has any notions of getting creative with an imperial stout, here are just some of the ways you can do it successfully. Easy on the wheat, though.

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