Stout Hearted

Now that we’re into December it appears Imperial Stout season is in full swing in Ontario. There are a number of great beers returning as well as some new ones making the round in the LCBO. The reason for this yearly flood is, to my mind, twofold.

The first reason is that as the temperature drops, beer drinkers may want something a bit richer and more warming rather than thin and refreshing. Few styles fit the bill quite as well as the Imperial Stout. The slight alcohol warmth, the roasted notes which remind one of cocoa and chocolate and the velvety mouthfeel create a brew which is perfect for cold winter nights.

The second, perhaps more pessimistic reason is that the Imperial Stout is easy to package as a premium drink. This time of year, people are more willing to part with some extra cash to get something a little nicer. These beers lend themselves to special editions and extravagant packaging. For some, this may be a turn off or seem like a money grab. For me, however, I will admit it adds a sense of occasion to these brews. Nonetheless, I’ve split my recommendations into two price points to accommodate those just getting into stouts or who would rather forgo the ornate stuff.

Imperial Stouts Below $10

Wellington Imperial Russian Stout 8% ABV ($3.15 / 473mL can)

Although not a seasonal (its available year round) this beer continues to be the value leader within this style (despite a whopping 20 cent increase in price this year). This is a much more traditionally English Imperial Stout so look for slightly sweeter notes of milk chocolate, figs and sweetened light roast coffee. The perfect transition from other dark styles such as porters, brown ales and milds.

Amsterdam Tempest 9% ABV / 100 IBU ($6.25 / 500 mL bottle)

Returning for 2014 into the LCBO, this powerful American style Imperial stout is definitely aimed at the more seasoned beer drinker. Despite being cellared for 3 months prior to release, the hop notes are still quite vivid but are balanced by a huge malt profile accented with a small proportion or rye. Bitterness is the core of this beer’s profile with notes of espresso, cooking chocolate and smoke coming to the front. Ready to drink now but with such a high hopping level, this is a great beer to start experimenting with cellaring (it will change fairly dramatically over a year or two). Look out for even more extreme versions such as the Sour cherry Stout ($12.95 / 750 mL), Full City Coffee Tempest and the all-conquering Barrel Aged Double Tempest featured below.

Nickel Brook Bolshevik Bastard 8% ABV / 70 IBU ($9.95 / 4×355 mL) 

Nickel Brook’s offering is notable for coming in 12 ounce bottles for those who may wish to drive after enjoying. While definitely more with the North American style, this brew is slightly more approachable than Tempest. Look for dark chocolate and brewed coffee as feature flavours. Ready to drink right away. Nickel Brook also produces some barrel aged versions discussed below.

Grand River Brewing Russian Gun Imperial Stout 8.4% ($4.95 / 500 mL bottle)

This is one of the more unique offerings in the sub $5 category. The addition of molasses and various spices can be slightly hard to detect in this beer, but the result is nevertheless a thoroughly satisfying Imperial Stout experience. While more bitter than the Wellington, this one is still a bit more approachable to the uninitiated than Tempest and makes for a great, low-cost introduction. Whether you love or hate the slightly home-made looking labels and plain red bottle caps, its clear Grand River isn’t charging you a premium for extravagant packaging. Good to drink now.

Imperial Stouts $10 and Above 

Nickel Book Old Kentucky Bastard 10% ABV ($12.95 / 750 mL bottle) 

The Bourbon barrel aged version of Bastard sees a substantial increase in alcohol (up 1.5% ABV). Bourbon notes are quite present in this beer with the classic combination of vanilla oak and cinnamon spice  being most noticeable. While fairly restrained for a 10% the additional alcohol makes its presence known. For those who like Bourbon influenced stouts, this is a definite winner. While this beer would not doubt be a great cellaring candidate, it is ready to drink now. Also, consider the Pinot Noir Barrel aged “Winey Bastard” available at the brewery and on tap at select craft beer bars.

Amsterdam Barrel Aged Double Tempest 14% ABV / 115 IBU ($15/ 650 mL bottle) 

Returning for a second year, Amsterdam has, as the name suggests, taken Tempest, doubled the amount of hops and malt / rye and aged the resulting concoction in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels for 11 months. When it comes out, the beer comes in at 14% ABV – and (from what I can tell) that’s without any of the aid of any added sugar, a secondary fermentation or fractional freezing. In the realm of extreme stouts (Dogfish Head World-wide, Three Floyds Dark Lord, Mikkeller Black, Avery Mephistopheles’ ) this beer is actually fairly drinkable but I would let this beer cool for 6 months to a year to really get the most out of it. Only available from Amsterdam’s retail stores.

Cellar Aged Muskoka Winter Beard 8% ($13.95 / 750 mL bottle)

This beer comes to you already cellared for one year. The flavours from the cranberries and dark chocolate predictably remind one of Black Forest cake and dark chocolate fruit filled candies. Despite being a very well brewed and excellently packaged product, I will admit the price is a bit steep compared to some of the other big stouts out there considering it has not been barrel aged. Ready to drink now. Even older versions can be purchased from Muskoka’s retail store. If you’re going up that way, also consider the slightly cheaper (and much cooler named) Blood of Cthulhu by Sawdust City which is another berry infused Imperial Stout.

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