Friday, November 20, 2009

Stout Month Review: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (winter 08-09 bottling)

You know what bugs me? Albums that have exactly one good song on them.

(I may be dating myself here; do people even buy albums anymore?)

There are many examples one could mention, but at the moment I cite Sabbath's Sabotage and Eric B. and Rakim's Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em. (These both are also probably the last interesting work produced by their respective groups, but I'm sure that's coincidence) Symptom of the Universe is, I think, one of the best Sabbath songs ever; I don't believe it's ever gonna break into my top five anytime soon, but it's heavy, it's fast, it features possibly the best vocals Ozzy ever put down, and it's got a riff so stimulating it could substitute for sexual intercourse. And the title track from Rhythm is the best MC of all time spitting ice-cold verses at the very height of his powers; it's an funky amen break enema, with syncopated rhymes practically tripping over themselves with complexity and sheer speed of delivery. These are both stupendously good tracks, and the problem is that there's nothing else on the albums that even come close. They tower over their company like Yao Ming at a Chuck E Cheese; the two elements just don't belong together.

With that in mind, I'd like to talk about the Brooklyn Brewery.

I've had several beers from Brooklyn, and almost all of them have been either middling or downright bad. Their Monster barleywine is just too damned alcoholic and hoppy, and this is coming from someone who confesses to love highly assertive beers. Their IPA, again, is too hoppy - a strange criticism against an IPA, but trust me, the back end is just balanced all wrong. And then there's their brown ale, which still strikes me as an offense against the style (call me old fashioned but browns should be a good balance between dry, sweet, and slightly nutty, not between burned out and bitterly harsh; they should a walk in the woods in autumn, not a wander through London circa 1940). Your friend Paul, the guy from the Lion Stout review, loves these guys, and that's because he has neither undamaged taste buds nor a soul. It's hard to determine any sort of coherent strategy for the flavor of these beers, except for a general "lots." For all of them they seem to have thrown everything they could possibly think of into the pot, and then declared it done once it was sufficiently pungent. And so, almost all of them kind of suck.

But then there's the Black Chocolate Stout. This beer's different: it's an imperial stout, and with an imperial stout you want to throw in everything you've got. So, for at least this one beer, the strategy works. And very happily so.

The bottle I'll be reviewing is from a year ago. Oddly enough, my local Binnys has been trying to get rid of these old six packs for months; they literally just took down the display a week or two ago. I can't fathom why this might have been. Did they just order too much? Were people not buying it? Whatever the reason, it offered me a primo opportunity to get a bunch of fantastically strong beers, mellowed for a full year, on the cheap. The first point of appeal for this stuff is the price: a six-pack of these go (or went) for ten or eleven dollars, which is pretty darn cheap for the style (you could drink this stuff every day and not break the bank, although I'm sure the sheer heaviness would preclude this). Anyways, maybe it's all the mellowing or maybe it's the fact that I haven't had an IS for awhile. Maybe I was hit in the head earlier. Whatever the reason, I like this stuff a lot, and would definitely recommend it especially as an introduction to the style. Well done, Brooklyn! You've made one decent beer!

So, the description. The bottle design, with its gold on black layout, reminds me (oddly) of magazine ads from the seventies; all it needs is a guy with bellbottoms and an afro off to the side, trying to sell me a brand of floor polish. After that, I'm afraid I must move on to describing the beer itself, a process which I fear shall be deeply predictable and boring. You may be surprised to know that, unlike all other imperial stouts, the Brooklyn pours a thick, deep black. I didn't mean that, actually, I should have said "just like every other frigging brew in this style." On top of that, with a good pour you even get the standard imperial stout one finger copper head. Thrilling stuff so far.

But then you take a whiff, and suddenly it is thrilling. I was expecting it to smell like, well, chocolate, and it doesn't. It smells, and I'm not joking, like some kind of fruit ice cream. No really, it's something like a raisin, blackberry, and molassas ice cream - as if you'd opened up one of those top-shelf pints that cost well into the double digits. Even more interesting (for me), a little bit of alcohol actually comes through in the scent. Now, the Black Chocolate Stout is 10% after all, so this honestly shouldn't be a surprise - but it's still the first stout I've reviewed on this site where it's relatively easy to tell what a beast it is. In any case, the fruitiness and the booze make this odor a rather special experience. In all honesty, if you threw me this nose blindly I'd almost be tempted to peg it as a red wine of some kind - if it weren't for the carbonation, anyways. It's just that fruity and floral.

The boozy smell is the first hint that you need to take this stuff seriously. The second is the mouthfeel, which is thicker than Blue Cheer locked in an amplifier warehouse. This is one heavy sunnovabitch - you pound this stuff at your peril.

Taste, then. Up front, it's mainly semisweet chocolate - bitter but with a good bit of sugar - and some tingle from the alcohol (or maybe the hops). Moving back, the roasted malts come into play big time. If I were to take a big lick from the stuff the coffee shop people knock out of those little espresso canister things, I suspect it would taste a little like this. Mixed in, though, is some of the fruitiness from the smell - raisins, prunes, berries, banana, and a lot of stuff I can't readily identify. (Nor do I have much time, since I'm way too busy enjoying this fantastic beer.) Finally the booziness starts to set in at the back, along with unsweetened cacao and a good kick from what tastes like hickory smoked hops. The cacao and hops linger on big time, and form most of the aftertaste (along with a little bit of blackberry).

It's a fine beast, this stout. In a contest with Old Rasputin for the title of best bargain imperial stout, I'd call it a draw: the OR is more complex, but this is oddly (considering its higher ABV) easier to take. Neither is a session beer - try to make a night of these things and you'll be in for a world of pain the next morning. Then again, that's not the point. An imperial stout is not a good time waster, it's not a good social lubricant; it's an explosion of flavors, sheer spectacle at its best, and somehow the otherwise wayward Brooklyn Brewery does it quite well. This, then, is their Symptom of the Universe: it's wonderful, almost awe-inspiring, and one only wishes the rest of the "album" were so good.

In absolute terms, I want to give this beer an A: the imperial stout is one of my favorite styles, and this is a good example of it. On the other hand, as an imperial stout this is indeed merely a good example, and not a great one. In order to leave some headroom for others, then, I grade it a B+. Keep it up, Brooklyn, and try to make another good beer one of these days!

Grade: B+
Summary: The Everyman's imperial stout.

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