I'd like to talk about a distinction between enhancement and gussying-up. Both of these things broadly amount to a sort of addition - you have one thing, and then you do something to it or put something else in it - but beyond that there remains a gap that makes all the difference.
Put it this way. A few weeks ago ago I took it upon myself to make my own oven-baked breaded chicken fingers. It was a complete disaster: they were greasy, overcooked, tough, and even smelled kind of funky. Not content to simply throw the things away, I took it upon myself to try eating them with whatever condiments were available. I gussied them up, in other words. Nothing worked: adding barbecue sauce, for example, simply made them taste like really awful chicken fingers with barbecue sauce on them. Spicy mustard, honey, even an unbelievably delicious cranberry sauce I had invented around thanksgiving - all of this simply sat on top of the fingers without changing their whatness, their terrible essence, in any way.
Now compare this situation to another, one which you might have heard of. Take some gin, i.e. some grain alcohol with a ton of juniper in it, and slosh it around with some herbally-infused wine and a lot of ice. Now strain out the ice and add an olive. It shouldn't be any good, should it? Gin, on its own, is fairly unenjoyable (it was made popular as a dirt-cheap alternative to beer for the British peasant, after all). Even vodka has a long, proud tradition of drinking on rocks or simply neat - not gin, though, not unless you're an alcoholic from the isles. So, in any case, we're not starting off with something particularly promising here. Nevertheless, add that herby wine in just the right proportions and drop in an olive and you've got something that isn't nearly as horrible as it should be. Indeed, you've got something spectacular: the dry martini. The gin, which on its own tastes like an evergreen tree mopping a floor, is mellowed and transformed by the vermouth. As a result you get something crisp and cold and sour and spicy. You get what is still one of the best aperitif cocktails in existence - just don't drink one right after eating, for god's sake, and not at all in amounts larger than two ounces or so (unless you feel like having dinner while nursing a sizable drunk). The dry martini, then, is an enhancement. The gin is transformed by what is done to it and added to it - not that it ceases to be gin, but it is gin in a certain sense sublated to a nobler status.
I have here two beers: the Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout made by the Bluegrass Brewing Company, and the Pipeline Porter made by Kona out in Hawaii. Both of these are examples of brews that have had something done to them. Both are examples of addition in the broad sense. The thing is, one of these additions works, and the other doesn't. One of these beers is very good, and the other isn't. So which is which?
The BBS is, as the name might imply, an imperial stout that's been aged in a bourbon barrel. I've had two examples of this style before: the Walter Payton attempt (which I liked) and the Goose Island version (which is probably the best beer I've had all year). I'm expecting good things from this, in other words. According to the website, this stuff has been in the wood for 60 days - not very long at all compared to the others, but presumably still enough to suck up some bourbon character. More weirdly, it's only rated at 8% ABV. That's slightly low even by imperial stout standards, and really low for a barrel stout. Oh, well, at least it comes with an atttractive barrel-themed label (wood grains and all).
Off goes the cap. It pours very black, but surprisingly it's not particularly thick - by appearance it just sort of looks like a middle-of-the-range stout, really, not the monster I've been expecting. Even more oddly, it's got a head. And a big one at that: I get three fingers' worth of tan bubbles from this stuff. I got nothing of the sort from the other two barrel stouts, and that probably says more about the BBC take's alcohol content than anything. The aroma is, well, subdued. Initially it's very much like the Payton and the Goose Island, except at about a tenth of the power. Underneath the sweet bourbon, oak, and vanilla smells, though, I detect more conventional stout flavors. It's kind of a dull coffee and cacao mixture, really. Hrmm.
If the aroma is disappointing, though, that's nothing compared to the taste. First imagine a day-old pile of bonfire ashes; now imagine pouring a shot of Beam over it. There, you've now got a pretty good idea of what this beer tastes like. There's a little bit of bourbon in this, to be sure, but you only really get it at the end. The rest is just a kind of dull charred maltiness. Up front I get a slight bitter tingle, which then expands into that not-very-pleasant burned flavor. This mostly holds steady until the aftertaste, when the vanilla-y bourbon sweetness finally (finally) pierces its way through. Even then, though, the ash still dominates. The aftertaste is pretty much the most pleasant aspect of the beer, really, and it doesn't even last that long. I'll grant them this: it's probably an easier beer to drink than the Payton or the Goose Island. It's not as heavy nor as strong, but the price you pay is that it's quite boring and not very good to drink.
What Bluegrass has here, then, is a questionable stout that's not very good to drink - I half suspect they took a flamethrower to the malt before they brewed it, although I can't confirm this - which they tried to fix by hosing it into a bourbon barrel for a couple of months. It hasn't really worked. Rather than turning a mediocre beer into a good one, they've just added a few new all-too-thin bourbony flavors to their mediocre beer. They've gussied it up, in other words. I suppose it's better than it might have been otherwise, but there's no getting around how ultimately disappointing this stuff is. C+, and that might be too generous.
Now for the Kona porter, and I'll get to the most important thing right away: this is a coffee beer. I don't much care for this style - in fact, I think many of the more prominent examples (e.g., the Founders) are overdone disasters in which all the flavors are drowned out by the weed from Ethiopia. So I'm biased against the Pipeline Porter from the beginning. And yet rather than a gigantic hideous baby, it's got a friendly baby blue surfing-themed design on its label. It looks friendly, it looks irreferent, it looks like something that one might actually want to drink...
In fairly standard fashion, it pours a moderately viscous auburn - a little bit of light gets through this stuff, but not a whole lot. It has a lovely one and a half finger tan head, too, and that's nice. But what's nicer is the aroma, which is - not too put the point too carefully - the greatest smell I've ever had from a coffee beer. For once, the joe doesn't take over completely! Instead there's a melding and a partnership between it and a rich roasted malt aroma. I get chocolate milk, brown sugar, and fresh oatmeal at first, and only when I scent deeper does the coffee cut in - enhancing the aroma rather than taking it over. Like the BBS, there's no trace of hops (but who cares?).
Honestly, the taste is a slight letdown after the smell. This time the coffee takes the lead - take a sip and its bitter edge hits the tongue right away. The notes of joe retain their dominance, on an increasingly shaky basis, all through the middle and the finish, where molasses notes start trying to pull it away (there's also a brief poke from the hops to remind you that you're drinking a porter, but they've clearly only got a bit part). Only a few moments after you swallow does the roasted malty sweetness really overcome its coffee rival, leaving a long and very pleasant aftertaste. Not as good as the aroma, then, but still very nice. Even the texture is about right for a porter - not too thick, not too watery.
This, then, is how you make a coffee beer. I have no illusions about this being the end-all, be-all of the style, mind. I think it can be done better. But at the moment, the Pipeline Porter is the one to beat; this beer is the yardstick. What the Kona folks had was a very solid porter to begin with that they then enhanced with, of all things, a touch of joe. And, through some impossible warlockery, they didn't screw it up. That minor miracle is enough to make this beer special; the fact that it's probably one of the best winter beers around makes it even moreso.
Bluegrass Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout
Summary: Take a used bourbon barrel and light it on fire. Put some of the remaining ashes in a widemouth. Bingo.
Kona Pipeline Porter
Summary: It's the glaznost of coffee beers. Joe and malt flavors working together towards mutual interests, leading to global peace.