Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stout Month Reviews: Goose Island Oatmeal Stout and Ceylon Lion Stout

I have two beers here. One of them is the Lion Stout, an export stout from the Ceylon Brewery in Sri Lanka. The other is an old Chicago standby, the Goose Island Oatmealer. These are two very different beers, brewed by very different companies in very different styles. And for this post I'm going to do something rather unusual. I'm going to compare these two stouts that really have nothing to do with one another, and draw a conclusion.

So let's talk about the Goose Island Oatmeal Stout first (hereafter abbreviated to Goatmoose Stout). Now, all told, Goose Island is a pretty large brewery: aside from being utterly ubiquitous in Chicago, they also sell in "15 states and the U.K.." That's not much compared to Miller, but I've known brewers that have a hard time selling to anyone beyond their front door.

Even taking that into account, though, they're bigger than you think. A few years ago they were bought (or very nearly bought) by the Craft Brewer's Alliance, which is even larger. This incorporation includes Goose Island, and also Widmer (in Portland), Redhook (New York), and even Kona (Hawaii). And, to cap it all off, a sizable portion of the CBA is owned by the massive beer giant known as Anheuser-Busch. Altogether, that puts Goose Island a stone's throw from being a sub-brand of the largest brewer in the United States. That means it's got a lot of money to throw around, and that means they've got plenty of people to make sure things are done well, done businesslike, and done efficiently.

The Goatmoose Stout is a fine example of this Willen zur Effizienz. One gets the sense that everything about it is made to exacting standards, everything precise within a razor's edge. Take the bottle design, for example. It's a masterpiece of understated professionalism - all white and grey on a black background, with a tasteful cursive font running all around the front-and-center goose logo and a beautifully laid-out set of serving instructions on the back. Even the bottletop looks good, seamlessly integrated into the total look. This is a fantastic bottle design, and someone with a soulpatch and a plaid shirt and (probably) a Macbook put a lot of time and effort into getting it right. I've had a lot of beers in recent years, and this is the only one of the lot that wears a tux. Congratulations on your fine work, Macbook man, and enjoy your iced soy chai latte - you've earned it.

Pour this stuff into a glass and it continues to impress. What you get is a nice deep mahogany color (not black - there's still plenty of light still passing through) and a small half-finger tan head, with moderate lacing. This is exactly the sort of thing that beer review sites love. Take a whiff, and the scent (surprise!) turns out to be very well-controlled as well. Mainly you get oats, honey, and raisin. The closest comparison I can come up with, actually, is freshly-baked cookies. Somewhere back there is roasted malt and a little yeast, but you really have to go searching for it; the general impression is just a nice, clean oaty smell.

Taking a sip, I get butter and just a little bit of bitter coffee upfront. The texture is less creamy than I expected - to what shouldn't have been my surprise, the Goose Island folks have carefully held it in check. More towards the back there's a very measured milk chocolate flavor, along with some slightly citrusy notes from the hops. The coffee comes back for the aftertaste: think of a medium-roast Columbian with cream and sugar. So it turns out to be, as one may have expected, quite delicious and wonderful. This, too, is the sort of stuff that pleases beer review sites.

The only problem comes after I've been drinking for awhile. About halfway through the bottle, I begin to notice an odd sliminess. It's difficult to describe - a sort of grimy feeling coating my mouth. It's not pleasant, but that's not enough to keep me from finishing the thing.

As an oatmeal stout, then, this is quite good: it's smooth, it's fairly light, it smells fantastic, and I could probably drink it all night if it weren't for that slimy buildup. It's not in the same league as the really good stouts of this sort (the Samuel Smith's, the Young's, even the Wolaver's (which is a personal favorite)), mind, but then that doesn't seem to be what GI was going for. One gets the impression that guys in lab coats and goggles spent a lot of time wandering around the brewery, checking all the gauges, doing very convoluted maths, and arguing about hop varieties and IBUs and local barley prices. One gets an image of precise operation and control. No, the Goatmoose Stout is no halo brew: it is, rather, calculated very precisely to be good beer on the cheap. It earns itself a solid B - a good beer. And a few of them wouldn't be a bad way of spending a night.

The Lion Stout, in contrast, was certainly not designed and marketed by the guys with plaid shirts and soulpatches. Rather than a professional six-pack carton, this stuff comes in an huge black cardboard box with a big goddamned lion on it. You get the sense they were trying for majesty here, but the label and box design just come off as rather goofy and halfassed. The lion on the box and the bottle looks less imposing and more like a pre-framed picture your aunt might have grabbed from a half-off kiosk at Wal-Mart. As a bonus, the bottle also includes a really shitty 'shopping job of Michael Jackson's portrait on the back, along with his endorsement. I blame the importers for this (looking at you, Elite Brands of Kalamazoo): rather than Macbook man, we get the fine work of the importer's 16-year-old son who's been playing with Photoshop regularly after downloading it off Piratebay two months ago. It's slightly painful to look at, honestly.

Then there's the beer itself, which was certainly not brewed by the guys with lab coats. I mean, it's from Sri Friggin' Lanka. Now, it's not like there were running battles with the Liberation Tigers around the fermentation tanks or anything but still, beer isn't really the first thing that comes to mind when I think of that particular island. And it gets worse, since the beer itself gives signs of having been made in a somewhat inexact fashion. It doesn't seem to have been filtered properly, for one thing, so by the time you've finished the stuff you'll have a small heap of black and light brown sediment in your glass.

So: it's poorly packaged, it hasn't been brewed with much care, and it's made in a tropical country ravaged by civil war for the better part of three decades. That's three strikes on the Lion Stout already. And that means it's completely hopeless.

Oh no it isn't. Instead it turns out to be, measure for measure, the best stout I've ever had. Yeah, that good.

I've been sitting here for ten minutes trying to think of some way that they might improve it. More hops? Maybe, but that would also throw off the oaky-chocolate flavors which are the star of the show. Stronger? It's already 8%, and hidden so well you'd almost never know. Thicker mouthfeel? But that would no doubt make it harder to drink. Trying to criticize this is like trying to criticize the SR-71: short of turning it into something else entirely, there just isn't anything you could do to make the thing better.

But I'm getting ahead of myself; I should actually describe what it's like to quaff this stuff before I stack any more breathless compliments atop of its stupid cardboard carton.

You'll get yourself a nice satisfying hiss upon popping the top. And that's a good starting indication, as the first thing you'll probably notice about the Lion stout is that it's very carbonated indeed. Well, not carbonated at all by Belgian standards - because you'll actually be able to get some of it into a glass before it spills all over the counter - but it's still enough to produce a huge two-finger bronze head that lingers for a couple of minutes, and that's not bad for a stout.

Lion pours a thick near-black - no light gets through at all. The smell? Mostly unsweetened chocolate and a lot of birch wood. More subtly, there's some espresso and something vaguely fruity. Cranberry, maybe. If you caught someone making brownies out in the middle of the redwood forests, I suspect the site would smell something like this. But as nice as the scents are, the smell isn't the real star of this production - so let's move on to what is.

The taste. Good lord, the taste. It's not extraordinarily complex, but there's a kind of crescendo to how it develops that makes the comparative simplicity irrelevant. Take a sip: it's surprisingly strong up front, especially for a stout, with a quick hit of a bitter tang. Making its way back, it quickly expands and strengthens - you get loads of bitter cocoa, tree bark (oddly), and just a touch of maple syrup. But don't let that fool you into thinking this is sweet. Compared to an IPA it is, I suppose, but the overwhelming impression is the deep, dark bitterness. It's bitter, very bitter. Maybe you could argue "bittersweet" to a point, but I'd stick to just bitter. As it reaches its peak, though, that bitterness starts to fall away in order to make room for a tart, fruity, and sometimes almost strawberry-like aura. It's terrific. And then there's the aftertaste, which is nutty and earthy - but in a good way, like on that camping trip where you ate a ton of overcooked marshmallows and lost your virginity to Jen from the class above yours.

Wait, that's a simile too far I think.

Anyways, how good is it? Your friend Paul, who only really likes beer if there are actual clumps of hop flowers still floating around in it, is going to find the Lion Stout boring. Your friend Samantha, who irrationally prefers milk chocolate over dark chocolate (in disregard of all human and divine law), is going to find it too woody and bitter. Both of these people are wrong, because this is a fantastic beer - maybe the best stout in the world, so far as I know. It is mindblowingly, elucidatingly, paradigm-shiftingly magnificent and delicious. And although it's somewhat carbonated, it's not particularly creamy or cloying, and neither is the 8% alcohol very present. So you could easily put away a couple of these in a night, and at a very reasonable $11 a sixer you could theoretically do this and not even hate yourself for it later. Just unbelievable.

I suppose it's possible that someone could make a better export stout than this. I see no logical contradiction in that, and nothing about the state of the world that prevents some other brewer from stepping up and outdoing the Ceylon folks. But I can't imagine how they might do it - and I certainly wouldn't bet on it ever happening, no matter how good the returns. So the Lion Stout gets an A+, because I can't in good conscience give it anything lower. Well done, Sri Lanka, you've given the world a masterpiece. I don't know much about this Michael Jackson guy, but clearly he had fine taste in his endorsements.

And so, in comparing our completely dissimilar stouts, what have we noticed? Well, we saw a quite large and well-financed brewing company make itself a very solid stout at a good price. Conversely, we saw a brewer in a former British colony produce, effectively, the new yardstick for all stouts of its type. And this goes to show that to make a truly monumental beer, you don't need a long and illustrious history of brewing or the newest technologies or guys with art degrees or the backing of Anheuser-Busch - or even a peacefully unified country, for that matter. So the lesson to be learned is, great beer can come from anywhere, without good cause and without warning. It is an event of sorts. It comes upon us like a tornado; it has no sufficient reason. And, in this case, it happens to arrive in a goofy black cardboard box.

Goose Island Oatmeal Stout
Grade: B
Summary: A smooth, tasty, and well-controlled (if somewhat dull) oatmealer.

Ceylon Lion Stout
Grade: A+
Summary: Stupid good export stout. One of the best beers in the world (rather inexplicably so).

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