Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: Ridgeway Foreign Export Stout

Ever since I aced the Lion Stout, I've had a nagging question. With the possible exception of Arcadia's Cocoa Loco - which is a somewhat different sort of beer - I'd never had an export stout before. And so, even though I was completely bowled over by the Sri Lanka slammer, there always remained a doubt about whether I really fell in love with the beer itself or with the style in general. Could it be that I'd just cornered the weakest member of a superior genus? Mightn't there be some other foreign stout out there which is even better? Thus, for a few months I've been keeping my eye out for something else of the same sort to compare the Lion with.

Needless to say I found one, and here it is: the Ridgeway Brewing Foreign Export Stout. It wasn't cheap - a mere 16.9 oz bottle went for $5.50, half the price of a whole sixer of Lions - but in the interest of science and my own curiosity I thought I'd give it a try. Unlike its South Asian cousin, though, this stuff hails direct from England. That gives it a "pedigree," I suppose, if that matters (it doesn't). And somehow it makes it seem even more ridiculous than the Lion, which (horrible photoshopping considered) is already pretty far up there. Despite how much I enjoy the culture, not to mention the beer, of England, there are some things that just send me giggling and keep me there. For starters, the Ridgeway here comes from somewhere called South Stoke, Oxfordshire. When I look it up Google Maps disagrees, and insists that No, South Stoke is actually in Berkshire, not Oxfordshire. So South Stoke either doesn't actually know where it is, or one of these sources is wrong. Frankly I'm happy to allow South Stoke to be wherever it likes, though, since both counties sound equally ridiculous to my American ears. They sound like the sort of places famous for a 12th century battle between some peasants and the esteemed Baron Doddingerton over taxation procedures in the Chipping Kilmister region. Everyone who lives there either drives a Bentley already or at least wants one - except in Oxford, maybe.

I kid, of course. They probably don't want them in Reading either.

But really, I kid because the beer itself encourages it. There's not much information to be found on Ridgeway Brewing, but the importers happily report that "Ridgeway Brewery is named for the ancient road... that meanders along a low escarpment across the high, rolling pastoral plain that is the southwest of England." Oh my. And it goes on: "The now patchy stone surface of the Ridgeway was laid by Britain’s oldest inhabitants – Druids and the like – thousands of years before the Romans turned up to build their own roadways. It is the oldest road in the British Isles and Europe, running nearly 100 miles, past that other ancient landmark, Stonehenge..." Okay, I'm stopping there, because if they pour any more of the Tradition thing on me I will probably start heaving. Yes, England is Old and your beer has history and Britishness and so on, we know.

On the outside, though, it really does have Britishness. I mean, blimey, just look at the bottle. It could only be more English if they'd somehow shaped the cap into the Spirit of Ecstasy. As a result, I'm expecting this stuff to taste like a mossy 9th century castle; whether that'll be a good or bad thing, I don't know. (But I'm eager to see.)

Well, here goes.

Nice - it pours a rich chocolate color, with a fine and proud three-finger tan head. I'm suddenly kicking myself for not having any Elgar on hand as accompaniment. The aroma is really lovely too - my closest point of reference is the Lion Stout, of course, but this is a bit more fruity and sweet, with way less cacao. Back behind the fruitiness is a mild toffee smell, intermixed with some earthy hops. It's a deep and musky aroma, really, like you might expect the Lake District to smell. It's not an amazing nose - it's actually a little too laid back, really - but it's pretty nice, and very British. Let's give it a sip or two.

Oh, that's scrumptious. Compared (again) to the Sri Lankan entry the taste is definitely several ranks sweeter, but it still maintains a bitter edge which (I assume) is characteristic of its species. There's some dark chocolate up front, which expands into a sweet but more espresso-like taste as it moves back. This is about where the fruitiness (prunes, mostly) from the nose comes in as well, although it's pretty well manhandled by the espresso. Then there's the hops, which arrive hauling nuts, soil, and that odd minty note I'm coming to associate with whole leaf hops. Finally, the aftertaste features whatever espresso has hung on from before plus the minty-soily hops. As far as texture goes, that too is like the Lion. Both are creamy but also quite carbonated, and these facts balance out nicely. It's a very easy beer to drink, especially for an eight percenter, but not so easy that you can unintentionally get yourself in trouble.

So by now you should already have some suspicion of the verdict. Is it a good beer? Yes, absolutely. I like it a lot, and if I could get a sixer of it around the $9 mark it would quickly go into my regular rotations. Hell, in a world without Sri Lanka I'd even be willing to drop six bucks on one every now and then. The trouble, obviously, is that as good as this is, a cheaper and even better brew is out there waiting to steal its blood pudding. As fine and English a beer as this is, the Lion Stout is somehow even moreso. It comes across as older, more earthy, more massive - and less user-friendly too, and by God better for it. Plus it's cheaper. Plus it's easier to find. So, basically on every level that matters the Lion is a better choice. Unless you really want a beer that's slightly sweeter, there's no reason to buy the Ridgeway. The English fought them in the brewing... and they lost.

So, to answer my question from before: yes, the Lion Stout really is that good. On the other hand, discovering and trying the Ridgeway has left me with a new puzzlement: why, exactly, did it take me this long to find another friggin' stout of this style? Why are so few breweries making them? I mean, just take a look at the beers available. Aside from the Lion, how many of these have you ever actually witnessed in the wild? Personally, I can recall seeing Fade to Black last year, and I know I spotted Reaper's entry somewhere or other. That's all. And this is still the case even when most of the sizeable microbreweries in the US (I suspect - haven't done the math) sell an imperial stout or two. The shelves are full of the damn things, in every variation anyone could want - 8% or 18% ABV, with chocolate, vanilla, and/or coffee thrown in, made with oatmeal or milk sugar, aged in barrels, whatever. Now, I love imperial stouts to a fault, but all of this still gets a bit stale after awhile. So why is it - with a earthier, mellower, possibly even more interesting, but equally powerful close relative of that style right on hand - that almost no one has bothered to switch things up? Why are there only a handful of American microbreweries selling these brews, leaving the Sri Lankans and the British as our main options?

I have to believe that I'm not the only person who adores this style. Other folks out there, perhaps, are also getting a bit bored with the parade of 40 proof Earl Grey-infused rum-barrel-aged hopheady stouts. So step up, brewers, it's time for something a little different. Give the Sri Lankans a scare or two.

Grade: B+
Summary: Like the Lion Stout, except sweeter and less interesting. And nearly three times as expensive.

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