Breweries brew all kinds of beer, but only a few produce exceptional imperial stouts time and time again. Often, they use one base imperial stout in their aging and barreling programs, but other times they add ingredients to alter the flavor one way or another. These are the five best breweries at producing series of imperial stouts.
(Note – I considered including non-imperial stouts, but the list became too unwieldy and I tend to prefer imperial stouts this time of year. Had I gone with all stouts, Bells would have surely deserved a mention. Their imperial is excellent and their lineup of non-imp stouts is impressive.)
5. Mikkeller – Between the Black Hole series and all those Beer Geek Breakfast/Brunch beers, it’s hard to find a more intriguing set of imperial stouts. Add to that one of the better big beers I’ve had this year in Black, Mikkeller holds the title of best Danish/Gypsy brewer of imperial stouts all by himself.
4. Great Divide – Sometimes, it becomes easy to overlook the great beers that do regularly ship to one’s market. We get Great Divide here in Missouri which is a treat. Their Yeti series of imperial stouts is pretty impressive. They add chocolate, oak, Belgian yeast, etc. for a nice lineup of tasty imp stouts.
3. Three Floyds – I have had one Dark Lord in my lifetime and it was pretty great. If you look at any beer rating site, the top imperial stouts list is littered with variations of this one beer. This fact makes it hard to not rate it in my top-5, but the fact I’ve only personally had one bottle makes it even more difficult to rate it higher than the next two breweries.
2. Goose Island – GI is famous for a couple of things. One is the fact that they were bought out by ABI. The second is that they brew Bourbon County Stout. On it’s own, BCS is an incredible beer. However, GI does several versions that are hard to get, but if you do, it’s totally worth it. On top of that, they sell the base imperial stout used to age in those bourbon barrels known as Big John. Let’s hope the first fact mentioned here doesn’t interfere with the second.
1. Founders – Even beyond all the hype built for the release of Canadian Breakfast Stout in bottles this year, Founders brews a mean lineup of imperial stouts. The breakfast stout is the only beer with coffee (aside from some of the Mikkeller beers) that I will regularly buy. Then, there’s Kentucky Bourbon Stout and their “regular” imperial stout. Plus, there are periodically versions of these beers popping up here and there in kegs all over the Midwest. All of this make Founders the king of the imperial stout, IMO.
Southern Tier – The Darkwater Series is hard to deny. Check out Chokolat, Creme Brullee, Mocha, and Java for four of the tastiest dessert beers you’ll ever find.
Hoppin’ Frog – I haven’t gotten far into the Frog’s BORIS series, but what I’ve had is pretty good. It would help if they had a wider distribution in Missouri, but I can wait for periodic shipments from Ohio now and again. Rumor has it that a DORIS is coming my way.
Alesmith – Alesmith’s Speedway stout is a pretty grand imperial, but I just haven’t had enough of it or any of its variations to be able to report on it. Plus, although well-hyped in its own right, it just doesn’t hold the cachet of a Three Floyds yet.
The pumpkin beer is a strange, strange thing. Either people crave it, always in-search of the perfect pumpkin beer, or they hate them, preferring to drink a Märzen or even stouts and porters during autumn months. I used to belong to the former group. I don’t know that I ever loved pumpkin ales, but I was certainly always on the lookout for the perfect one.
There have been a few pumpkin ales that have satisfied my needs over the years. Schlafly’s Pumpkin Ale tastes and looks like it is boozier than it really is. There’s not a load of heat, but it has the thin, alcohol-y feel and almost no head of a high ABV brew. The Dogfish Head Punkin is another I’ve enjoyed. This is a malty take on the fall classic. Finally, Southern Tier’s Pumpking is the bready, vanilla-dominated version many a beer geek crave.
Interestingly, for me, all three of these beers feature more of a pumpkin flavor than a cinna-nutmeg bomb that tastes like pumpkin pie in a glass. The spices are typically too heavy in pumpkin ales, making them just another failed homebrew experiment with spice. I like that these three beers generally steer away from spice and actually showcase the pumpkin.
That said, even the pumpkin ales I’ve liked eventually grow old. After a while, I feel like I’m drinking vegetables. In fact, I had sworn off this season’s offerings in favor of other autumnal beers. Bottles of liquid pumpkin pie or vegetable just don’t do it for me.
Now, there was once a completely different pumpkin ale that got me thinking there could be potential for the style. Of course, it’s the highest rated pumpkin ale on RateBeer and it happens to come from one of my favorite breweries, Jolly Pumpkin. JP’s La Parcela didn’t blow me away, but it did help me question what could be done with a pumpkin ale under the correct brewer-ship. The idea of a pumpkin beer that is a bit sour and features other flavors outside of nutmeg and cinnamon really intrigued me. However, this was not a fantastic beer for me.
So, the search continued…
And like I said, I thought I had sworn off pumpkin ales. That’s when New Belgium’s Kick hit the store shelves. Kick was the new sour pumpkin ale put out on NB’s Lips of Faith Series…
Lips of Faith is one of the better brands of beers put out by a large craft brewer. Like Boulevard, New Belgium uses less-challenging flagship beers to fund forays into Belgian-styles or even Belgo-American fusions. I am a huge fan of the series. Although I don’t like a ton of NB beers, Lips of Faith brews are always interesting and often quite good. You know what I think of La Folie and that’s just the beginning as far as this series is concerned.
Kick is actually a collaboration with Seattle’s Elysian Brewery. Elysian brought the pumpkin and New Belgium brought the sour in the form of cranberry. The result is a pleasantly subtle experience with just a touch of tartness. I get more cranberry from this beer than I get pumpkin. In fact, this beer is subtle in every aspect, but the tartness is its clear strength.
So, the pumpkin beer I’ve now decided is okay to drink is the one that doesn’t really taste that much like pumpkin. What’s the point? Why drink a pumpkin beer that doesn’t really taste of gourd? Well, maybe I don’t actually like pumpkin beers.
And what does pumpkin add to a beer? Sweetness? Mostly, I think it has to do with the incessant spicing home brewers do to their beers. The pumpkin ale is an opportunity to spice your beer like a pumpkin pie. For my money, the addition of chocolate (La Parcela) or cranberry (Kick) is far more interesting than anything associated with pumpkin pie.
This brings up another point that’s been alluded to in describing Kick: subtlety. I want to give this topic its due, but I would be remiss not putting the idea out there that subtlety is maybe just a nice way of saying “flavorless” or “bland.” I don’t think that’s the case with Kick, but it’s a topic to discuss down the road.
Anyway, my search for the great pumpkin ale has ended with Kick. It’s not exactly where I thought I’d end or the beer others would suspect, but it’s a nice fall beer nonetheless.
1What is it with home brewers and spices? They skimp on hops, but spice the hell out of every pumpkin or winter warmer they brew. And since most craft brewers started out as home brewers, this despicable practice carries on.
2Sometimes quite literally. I bought two sixers one year of Schlafly’s version and quickly wished I hadn’t. I think I actually tossed a couple of bottles and used a couple more for pumpkin beer bread.
3Apparently, they do it for some. The displays this year for Schlafly’s Pumpkin ale are huge and the biggest event at Flat Branch (brewpub here in Columbia) is the pumpkin beer release.
4Some breweries don’t go Belgo-American and typically brew big, extreme beers on the flagship’s profit margins.
5Elysian and I have quite a history. I was once in a bind in Seattle (long story). A friend took me to Elysian to sort things out. That day, I discovered that beers could feature citrus flavors without a lime jammed down their necks. That was like 14 years ago(!).
6This is where I imagine the Wonder Twins go into brewing and take the form of their most important ingredients. “Form of two-row!” “Form of Centennial!”
7See. I hate spice in my beer.
8Particularly chocolate from my friend, Alan. He also supplies Northern Brewer with their cocoa nibs.