Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Epic Battle of the Adjunct Chili Stouts: Slaying Some Personal White Whales

Beer geeks not only seek the new, whether to tick or to chase the next big thing, but they further hold out dreams of slaying a 'white whale.'  Invoking Moby Dick, a white whale is that elusive, limited, hyped rarity that for some reason (amongst all other whales) elicits the deepest desires of the geek in question.  What constitutes a whale is subjective and depends on many factors, and I have had some rarer beers before, but this tasting epitomized the slaying (read: drinking) of multiple personal white whales, in styles that drive me nuts.

Several of these were brewery only and/or had bottle counts in the low hundreds.  They also trade at quite a high value, are highly rated, come from afar (to Quebec anyway) and aren't easily procured.  Moreover, faithful readers know I love me an imperial stout.  I also love chilis and chili beers, though there aren't too many chili imperial stouts on my regular radar.

Thus, the barrel-aged (and regular) variants of Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, Mexican Cake, and Abraxas all fall into that dreamy category for me... or they did.  It doesn't hurt either that, despite rarity, these beers are all immensely praised and (at the time of writing) not a one rated less than 97 on Beeradvocate. (Don't ask, however, how many 'loons flew the coup - and went South over the Farmstead Hill -  in quest of these bottles!* I can't count that many 'loons in flight.)

The lineup consisted of (in consumed order): Prairie Artisan Ales (from Oklahoma) Bomb!, Perennial Artisan Ales (from Missouri) Abraxas and Barrel-Aged Abraxas, Cigar City's (Florida) Hunahpu's Imperial Stout and Double-Barrel (Rum and Apple-Brandy) Hunahpu's, and Westbrook's (South Carolina) Mexican Cake, as well as two variants, Tequila Barrel-Aged Mexican Cake and Double Barrel (Bourbon and Rye) Mexican Cake, and a fine blend I like to call 'Quadruple Barrel Mexican Pu' made from a blend of both double barrel aged beers.  Yep, that's a lot of adjunct stout to review, so on to the goodness...

Bomb! (13% ABV) (2014) combines coffee, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and ancho chili peppers in a solid imperial stout base.  It pours a deep dark brown to black, with a slight deep tan to light mocha head of minimal retention.  From the bouquet, I get dark chocolate in predominance, with some espresso and faint chili notes.  Tastewise, the chocolate is once again dominant, though traces of coffee are present and some chili spreads on the tongue via the carbonation.  That carbonation, however, is minimal with a medium-full body, yet despite a decent smoothness, this one is a touch sticky.  The alcohol is well hidden on both tongue and chest in a remarkable fashion; or, perhaps, with so many adjuncts, it isn't actually all that remarkable.  Overall, this is a great beer (and my second time with it), but it seems to not quite know what it is... coffee stout, chili stout, chocolate stout, who knows?  But it is super drinkable, and blends the adjuncts pretty well.  Grade: A-

Hunahpu's Imperial Stout (11% ABV) (2014 despite the 2015 in the pic above, brewed with cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, Ancho chilis, Pasilla chilis, and cinnamon) clomps into the glass exposing its mass alongside its deep darkness.  There is a moderately sized mocha head, though with negligible retention and no lace to speak of.  The aroma is inviting with loads of chili-chocolate (reminiscent in, literally, of a dark chocolate truffle with chilis) and a fair amount of what smells like super-fresh, wonderfully high quality vanilla beans.  There is a fresh vegetal quality, faintly reminiscent of olives as well.  It isn't ideal, but isn't entirely off-putting either as I suspect it is, rather than an off-flavour, connected with the vanilla beans of (once) fresh, gourmet quality.  The notes connect in my mind, at least, whether they do so in reality.  It tastes first of deep, rich chocolate, followed by those delightful vanilla beans, before concluding with a strong cinnamon presence and just a hint of chili warmth.  There is a mild dual-warmth after the swallow as both a trace of heat and a low-moderate chili burn return up the esophagus.  This beer has the creamiest, silkiest, thickest-bodied mouthfeel ever, even compared to nitro-tapped heavies!  (Perhaps not the thickest beer, though very thick, but the silkiest for sure!)  What a treasure on the tongue!  Overall, this does a lot of things right, but it feels a bit more muddled (than Bomb!) by the over-presence of too many conflicting adjuncts.  The chocolate, the vanilla, the chilis all just seem in so much competition (and too little chili for me, though it is over a year old) that the stout is long gone.  It is great, don't get me wrong, but I feel like I drank a thick, chocolate-vanilla, lightly hot, slightly boozy, creamy milkshake, not an imperial stout.  The beer was lost a bit in the adjunct process - or perhaps in the age. Grade: A-

Double-Barrel Hunahpu's Imperial Stout (11% ABV), aged in both Rum and Apple Brandy barrels, was brewed once in 2014 and released at the brewery only amidst a near beer riot.  It is visually undifferentiated from the non-BA Hunahpu, except for a smaller head.  The nose wafts an increased vanilla component alongside the presence of some wood, but is otherwise similar though that faint olive note is a bit more muted here, as are the other adjunct notes, though the chocolate remains fairly present.  The taste is a bit sweeter up front with vanilla and cinnamon taking more of a centre stage than the chocolate.  The middle brings some rum spice and woody characteristics, before a more heated, chili finish.  The carbonation seems a touch more pronounced than in the regular version, while the feel remains almost identically silky if a tad less thick. The alcoholic heat is well-hidden on the palate.  Overall, by muting the olive notes, as well as better blending the adjuncts with some wood presence, while effectively holding the body, this is the better beer, though I have heard that it has faded greatly since it is now 15-months past launch.  Grade: high A-

Abraxas (10% ABV), crafted with ancho chilis, vanilla beans, cacao nibs, and cinnamon sticks, was the biggest disappointment of the night for me.  And yet, it is still a fine beer, so I wasn't too disappointed to ingest it!  It is visibly a shade lighter, presenting a dark brown in contrast, while topped with a scant head that almost resembles red wine bubbling lightly from an aggressive pour.  The noise has more roast qualities than Huna, showing its stout origins more than simply the adjuncts.  As far as the adjuncts go, the cinnamon is paramount, before some of the chocolate and just traces of vanilla.  There is also a slight ashy quality to it, alongside a faint hint of ethanol that is more discernible than in either of the (slightly stronger) Hunahpus.  As it opens up, the chilis come forward a bit more, making the nose fairly dynamic.  The taste is fairly sweet and cinnamon-dominated, while there is an almost milk-chocolate quality to the middle.  It has a very, very faint return of mild chili spice and a touch of alcohol heat in the finish.  The body is a touch lighter, and it is even less carbonated than Huna, while there is also a more present alcohol burn (and detectable flavour) as well.  Grade: B+

Barrel-Aged Abraxas (11% ABV), aged in Rye Whiskey barrels, poured the same dark brown of the base beer, with a comparably negligible head.  The nose has transformed completely however, starting out with more cacao that is complemented by traces of oak and a hint of spicy rye.  There are also some slight chili pepper notes, and faint whisps of ethanol.  The taste likewise begins with a chocolate assault, before transitioning first to ethanol, then to a mix of rye spice and a smooth, if not over-bearing chili tingle.  It is slightly warm in the linger, but more of alcohol than chili, though both are present.  Overall, it presents just enough chili, and just enough barrel, with muted adjuncts overall to have all components enhance rather than detract from each other.  It offers slightly more barrel notes than DBH; just enough for that blended complexity of components aforementioned.  Grade: A

Mexican Cake (10.5% ABV, 2013 bottling date, brewed with cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, and habanero peppers) pours thickly dark with but a slight tan head, and no real retention to speak of.  The nose wafts a nice blend of roasted malts coupled with the chocolate to present this bittersweet cacao up front, complemented by vanilla and coffee-esque notes, with muted cinnamon, and mere traces of chili.  The taste is a bit milder up front than in the finish, but starting with a fine blend of roasty stout qualities, alongside adjunct chocolate and vanilla, before a chili finish that begins before the swallow and a lengthy linger lasting through the next sip.  The body is a bit thinner than Abraxas, and certainly thinner than Huna, but the feel remains fairly creamy despite a bolder carbonation (that works well with the spice). With just a touch more body, this would be perfect to me as the best obvious 'stout' tasted (on its own terms) and with muted adjuncts except for the one I like the most!  (BTW: though my notes remain coherent, I am terribly sorry that my pictures started to get drunk from here on in... damn Android, no app to increase either tolerance or to correct for the user!)  Grade: A/A+

Tequila Barrel-Aged Mexican Cake (10.5% ABV) almost identically resembles the base beer, and the nose is again similar but with a few key differences.  First, the aroma starts with a greater depth of chocolate, before more spicy notes of both tequila and chili which masks the chili a bit in the balance between the two.  The taste, again, begins a bit more chocolate forward than the base brew, while the finish is entirely spicy, yet only vaguely of chilis with an equal blend of tequila and woody characteristics as well.  It has a touch less carbonation than the regular version, but a similar body and remains quite solid indeed.  Grade: A/A+

Double-Barrel Mexican Cake (10.5% ABV) pours a similar colour, though the head seems a bit more mocha coloured and a bit less substantial.  The aroma presents a perfect blend of chocolate, whiskey, wood, moderate vanilla, and very faint chili.  The taste is similar, if a bit boozier than the base beer, while very woody with vanilla and chocolate preceding a spicy chili finish and linger.  This is a bit spicier than not just the other Cakes, but all of the other beers in the tasting.  It has a bit less carbonation than the other Cakes, but also seems to have thickened up a bit and leaves no residual stickyness on the palate.  This is clearly the best beer of the night, according to all four tasters involved, as it exemplifies balance in the adjuncts (except for the chili which the other non-Cakes leave as too weak), presents the strongest imperial stout base, and offers a solid if not dominating aspect of the barrels!  Grade: A+

Then, of course, there was the blend I like to call 'Quadruple Barrel Mexican Pu,' which offers a chocolate-dominant nose, supported by some cinnamon and vanilla (in a barrel-way), while the flavour is pretty chocolatey and vanilla forward, with a solid chili burn in the finish.  It works well by bringing much of Cake's strengths forward while adding aspects of Huna's remarkable body.  A fine blend, indeed!  Grade: A+

Though the Huna we tasted may have been showing its age at 15 months old, our Cake (non-BA) was even older and it stood up in a much stronger way, despite the bodily might of the Huna.  Huna just felt like a mess of adjuncts (if one can call a still great beer a 'mess') while Cake minimized the supporting adjuncts to the stout at hand - except for the personally desired chili.  Thus, I'd say: (Quad Barrel Mex Pu>) DB Cake>Cake tied with Tequila Cake>BA Abraxas>DB Huna>Huna tied with Bomb!>Abraxas.

Yet for me, a lesson here if this: it usually isn't worth it to trade and ship for high end prizes.  Yes, I loved Cake and DB Cake, but trading for Cake is about 10 times easier and cheaper than for DB Cake, and DB Cake is NOT 10 times better than its base.  In my opinion, flip for the regs and let the variants be... unless you have so many big trade guns that you don't know what to do with, or unless these top your whale search list!  That said, as these were basically all on my beer bucket list, it had to be done and I didn't regret drinking a single thing on this list, and nor would I ever.

'Til next time... cheers!

(By the way, if you wonder how I can safely drink this many strong beers in one epic tasting: it was four of us throughout, with, at times, a 5th and 6th person nabbing tastes, and we spaced it out over 5 hours with large glasses of water between each sip.  #drinkresponsibly-ish!)

*Beer geek jargon clarification/translation: "Don't ask how many [relatively rare and highly valued Belgian] Cantillon lambics and gueuzes - as well as Hill Farmstead beers - were traded to find these and compile them over the last year for this great night."

1 comment: