Sunday, April 11, 2010

Review: Goose Island Night Stalker Imperial Stout

It's always hard being the younger sibling. Especially when your older kin is rightly famous. Basically, assuming you aren't cynical enough to simply hop onto the name and ride it towards your own limited and mediocre success, you're in for a life of being introduced as a brother or sister. (One thinks of the complaint of Abraham Mendelssohn: "Once I was the son of my father, now I am the father of my son.") Unless, of course, you're actually able to meet or even outdo your sibling. Which has been known to happen on occasion (looking at you, Serena Williams).

Night Stalker here is in a similar sort of situation. It's made from the same basic stuff as Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout, which is probably still the best beer I've ever had, but instead of throwing it in a whiskey barrel for a couple of months to mellow they saturate the stuff with Mt. Hood and Simcoe hops and let it loose on an unsuspecting public. For awhile they were only serving it on draft, but now it's finally getting a proper bottled release.

Me, I've got two of them. One of them I'm storing away until the hops die down a bit. The other I'm drinking now, say about a year before I probably should. Numbers? Well, it's 11.7% alcohol by volume, which is slightly below than the mind-numbing 13% of the BCS. It's also ten bucks for a deuce-deuce bottle, only two less than its older kin. And at close to the same price, it's gotta be nearly as good or better. Is it? Let's find out.

Holy crap, the hops. I've barely cracked the cap and already the piney fumes of California are filling the room. This is fierce, eye-watering, wallpaper-peeling stuff. Put this near a houseplant and it'll be dead within minutes. It smells for all the world like an IPA, and a particularly potent and biting one at that - everything is grapefruity citrus wrapped around pine needles, soaked in alcohol. Even with all those hops, there's no way they're going to hide a level of heat well north of 20 proof. After I eventually get around to pouring it, it finally begins to seem like a stout. Night Stalker is a rich, syrupy motor-oil black with a one-finger sepia head; the stuff is utterly gorgeous, honestly. Giving the nose a second chance, I still can't smell anything beyond hops and booze. The malt, so powerful in the BCS, is nowhere to be found. After a round of agitation I can only just begin to detect it - there's some roasted stuff in there trying to push a bit of espresso through, but that's all, and even that's gone after a moment. Beyond that this aroma is all fresh, sour, grassy, nose-runny, brutal hops.

On the taste it wins back a lot of points. The closest comparison, as you might expect, is its older brother. Like the BCS, Night Stalker is all about throwing as many flavors around as possible. It's got a similar rich, almost too crowded taste profile - with the difference that there's no oaky bourbon notes at all, way less sheer thickness, a lot of dialing back on everything else, and a hell of a lot more hops. Up front and going into the middle, coffee and mocha dominate with a billion additional flavors swarming around them. It's not even desperately bitter or hot at this point, either: for an imperial stout of such power and mass, this bit of the profile is shockingly drinkable. Even here, though, the grassy grapefruit of the hops is working its magic, and it really gets into its groove by the end. The closing moments are a big juicy California slap in the face, one which slowly fades out into a more mellow piney aura. Here I was expecting the malts to completely give up the ghost - but to their credit, they don't! Instead they too climax into a big boozy bittersweet (emphasis on the sweet) finish, with flavors of rum and wood emerging. The aftertaste, consisting of the afterglow from these malts intermixed with the piney hop remains, lasts pretty much until one's next sip.

Is it easy to drink? Uh, no. It's not quite as good at smearing one's mouth as the Bourbon County Stout, which is an acknowledged master, but it's not too far away from that. And it's still thick, hot, and very very hoppy, so this is a beer that's going to take awhile. But that's okay, because drinking this brew slowly - as one must - is a rewarding thing. Unlike the BCS, which is amazing right from the start, this one takes awhile to work its charms. At first it comes over way, way too hot and hoppy, as if you've just been thrown into a citrusy sea of alcohol. It takes awhile to learn to breathe. As it warms and as you start to adjust, the beer begins to reveal is subtleties - and there are a lot of them. Vanilla, sassafras, prunes, a little touch of licorice, things I can't even name - tons and tons of flavors all stacked on top of each other. So, this beer is a chainsaw-weilding maniac at heart. But it's a maniac with a library and a fantastic art collection.

It's good, this beer, within shooting distance of great. But there are three problems with it. First, it really is just too young right now (as I expected). It needs a good couple of months (make that years) of mellowing before it'll truly come into its own. Second, there's the price. $10 is too much. It's a very good imperial stout, true, but you can get other very good imperial stouts for half that price. But those two, glaring though they may be, aren't Night Stalker's biggest problem (and you should already have some idea of what is). For it may be an amazing, even a world class beer, but there's one thing it'll never be: better than its big brother.

Sure, Night Stalker is pretty damn complex, but the Bourbon County Stout tops it. Night Stalker may be loud and shouty and overpowering, but the BCS has even more presence without resorting to hop terrorism. All this beer does, essentially, is to take the skeleton of its older sibling and run with it in a different (worse) direction. Only hopeless hopheads and completionists need ever really consider trying one. If you want a ridiculously hoppy beer, buy a Hopslam. If you want a stupid-good imperial stout brewed by Goose Island, buy a BCS. If you need something that splits the difference... well, buy a four-pack of Old Rasputins.

I snagged two of these things, which I don't regret. I have no doubt that beer enthusiasts worldwide have also grabbed a few to enjoy, pack away, and share with friends. Rightly so: it's good beer. The thing is, though, Goose Island made 750 cases of this stuff. That's nine thousand bottles. And 9k may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that most of them are going to be kept around the Chicago area. Are there, say, five thousand people here willing to drop ten bucks on a bottle of hoppy 11.7% stout? Call me cynical, but I have my doubts. It would be fine if it were something totally unique, but it's not - no one except the hardcore will bother, and after the curious have tried it once they'll simply fork over the two extra bucks and switch back to the BCS. So expect to see these dark, ominous bottles clogging up Binnys store shelves well into next year.

Sad to say, then, it's just another case of a sibling getting overshadowed. If you see it heavily discounted - and it will be - give Night Stalker a shot, but otherwise you don't really need to bother. Sucks to be the baby of the family, eh?

Grade: A-
Summary: Bittersweet, complex, delicious, extremely hoppy, and - sad to say - basically pointless.

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