So I've been buying a lot of stouts lately. Actually, I somehow haven't bought any beer that isn't a stout in several weeks. This is, of course, no great tragedy, since I love the things. But since I've got so many of them around, I had an idea: why not do a whole string of stout reviews?
And thus Stout Month was born. A whole month's worth of stout reviews before I even bother, uh, reviewing other kinds of beer. So watch out, November, I'm about to stout your shit up.
Okay, then: the Mendocino Black Hawk.
Now, I love the Mendocino Brewing Company. They aren't weird as all get out (like Dogfish Head), and they aren't seemingly incapable of making a bad beer (like Great Lakes). Sure, they've got some good brews, but there's not a single beer in their catalogue that I would call a world-beater. In terms of quality Mendocino isn't among the greats, and neither is this stout. So why do I like them? Well, here's the thing: a sixer of BHS costs $6.50.
Do any of you remember Rudy? It's a lackluster movie, most notable for Jerry Goldsmith's fantastic score (which has since been used in every movie trailer ever made). Rudy is the story of Sam from the LOTR movies, who's a dopey kid determined to play football for Notre Dame. The problem, of course, is that he's a weakling who's too damn short. Things follow the standard Horatio Alger mould (albeit with less payoff in the end than one may have expected), and we are of course supposed to root for Sam the underdog. Which we do, even when we hate this sort of thing. The Black Hawk Stout, and Mendocino in general, have an odd way of reminding me of this movie, except instead of having raw dumb determination on their side they've got a stupidly low price tag.
$6.50 for a six-pack! That's less than a buck ten per bottle, and that's pretty damn cheap. Let me put this in perspective for you: $6.50 turns out to be exactly the same price as a six-pack of Budweiser. And this is a stout, which is three-of-a-kind to the macrobrewed crap lager's pair of sevens. Heck, it's even a pretty decent beer by its own merits, which is more than I can say of most other $6-7 microbrewed (or pseudo-microbrewed) six-packs. Those of you who've spent any time working through the Dundee or Shiner catalogues know what I'm talking about: typically you get drawn in by the low price, only to find when you get it home that you've bought something quite dull or, worse, slightly nasty. Mendocino is not really like those companies, though. Spend some time on the Shiner or Summit websites and then head over to the Mendocino one, and you'll see what I mean: it looks like they paid a CompSci major $20 to throw the thing together back in 2001. Actually, the whole Mendocino design is rather charmingly inept. Check out the goofy bird-inspired labels, which wouldn't look out of place on the side of a 70s Chevy van; the only "image" this brewery cultivates is of a bar slash independent music venue in Cincinnati circa 1985. Obviously my money's not going to a mass-produced mess gussied up with a nice logo, and thus I can only conclude it's going into the beer itself. And that's a good thing.
So, the stout. It's not even the most interesting beer Mendocino makes - that would be the mental Eye of the Hawk, which is a sort of red ale gone ballistic that completely eliminates any justification for buying cheap shitty beer. (No, really, follow my math here. Natural Light costs $7 for a 12-pack. 12 ounces x 4.2% alcohol content x 12 cans / $7 = .864 ounces of alcohol per dollar. Eye costs $6.50 for a sixer. 12 ounces x 8% alcohol content x 6 bottles / $6.50 = .886 ounces of alcohol per dollar. Even if you're just in it to get drunk, Eye of the Hawk is the better buy. And, thrown in as a bonus, it's actually a pleasure to spond. Are you paying attention, frat boys?) I think Black Hawk is, however, the best of the bunch to drink. It's more or less an Irish stout, but with some special touches. First, Mendocino "bottle conditions" all of their beers - i.e., they throw some live yeast in there to ferment before they close the thing up. Second, they promise a "refreshingly dry crispness." Uhh, yeah.
Well then, let's get this thing poured. The color is, of course, black, with just the tiniest hint of an off-white head and a little bit of lacing on the glass. More interesting is the film floating on top (I'm assuming that's my yeast). The scent is surprisingly pleasant, which I wasn't really expecting: tons of roasted malt, some caramel, and a little bit of the characteristic fresh-from-the-oven bread smell I've come to expect from these guys. A couple of swirls enhances all of this, but doesn't bring anything new to the fore.
The taste is actually something of a letdown after the smell (I find this is pretty common with dry stouts). Up front you've got a lot of malt and some bittersweetness, but nothing of any great excitement. More interesting is the finish: where I was expecting more malt and chocolate, I instead get some hoppiness and a mild bite. That must be the "dry crispness" they were on about, and it's actually pretty pleasant. Somewhere, way back in there, is the yeast. It especially comes up in the aftertaste, but even there it's mostly dominated by a nice dry pucker - imagine the Kalahari with a big thick slice of sourdough right in the middle of it and you'll be close.
But the most shocking thing about this beer is the lightness of the stuff. Drinking an Irish stout usually feels like gargling half and half, but this just doesn't. It's a little creamy, to be sure, but not really moreso than your average middle-of-the-range malty ale. One Guinness and I'm pretty much done for the night, but this stuff... my God. Even a lightweight could work through a six pack of these with no problem. And this gives you a clue as to what the Mendocino folks had in mind...
Now, this isn't my favorite example of an Irish stout. It doesn't blow you away, really, as there's not a whole lot of interest flavorwise beyond the dry close. Put this thing in a tasting competition against a really good Irish stout - say, the Black Sun from Three Floyd's - and there wouldn't be any comparison. But that too is a pretty heavy beer - and this isn't. One gets the distinct sense that Mendocino could've made this thing heavier and generally more interesting if they'd wanted to, but they held back. And there's a very good reason for such a move: this stout, like most of Mendocino's catalogue, is a session beer.
Once you understand this fact, the logic behind it all - the lightness, the crisp texture, and not to mention the price - begins to make sense. Take a sip - there's malty sweetness, but then there's that dry Sahara finish. Makes you want to quaff more of the stuff, doesn't it? So you take another sip. And another. And you start to forget you're even drinking, because it's so unassuming. And then you grab another bottle. And so on.
That's the secret here. This stout is not something you drink twice a year out of a snifter, abbey-brewed tripel style. No, the sole reason it exists is for sessioning, and it's very good at it. It's for long nights of fun with the guys and gals, when you need something cheap and relatively tasty and easy to drink in order to keep everyone pleasantly lubricated for several hours. This is a beer brewed for marathons, and if that's what you're after then there's probably no better bargain in Chicago. I can think of a few equals (some of which I'd like to review in later posts), but nothing unequivocally superior.
I'm going to give this a B. That's based entirely on how it compares to other stouts of the same sort, mind, which is just how I grade things. All the same, though, I'm tempted to break my own rule. If I rated this thing not on its taste relative to other beers, but on its value and utility as a party beer, it would be an easy A. Students of philosophy have to be consistent, though, so a B it is.
Summary: A light, reliable, middle-of-the-road stout priced to compete against macrobrews. What's not to like?