Very good beers share a single quality with very bad beers and with none in-between: you know instantly whether they're winners. It took only the length of time for the taste buds to deliver their message along neural pathways to my brain to make my judgment. One sip of Raven mad and I knew it was a very good beer.
It is now practically mandatory for breweries to release special high-gravity beers. It keeps the (all-powerful) bloggers happy and creates buzz for a brewery which (I presume they hope) reflects back onto the main product line. No brewery has been more agressive at pursuing serious beers than BridgePort, but so far, they have yet to score an Abyss-like home run. It's not for lack of creativity or imagination. Beginning with Supris a couple years back and continuing through this current run of their Big Beers, they've really been experimenting. Stumptown Tart was a total misfire. Hop Czar was respectable, but didn't hit Tricerahops heights. But with Raven Mad, what's the line? Right--three's a charm.
It's easy to make a big beer that inspires awe, but a whole lot harder to make one that is instantly pleasurable. I tend to approach high-gravity monsters with caution--too often they bully my taste buds rather than impress them. It was with this caution that I approached BridgePort's latest, an imperial porter aged in both Jack Daniels and pinot barrels. For one thing, bourbon barrels have become a bit of a bane to brewing; they can swamp an otherwise fine beer with either harsh liquor notes or a cloying butterscotch sweetness. Or worse, both. Pinot barrels contribute less overt flavor, but wine is very tricky; in most examples I've tried, it has made the beer taste sweetly underfermented. Since it was these flaming torches BridgePort decided to juggle, I approached with even more caution.
No worries. The first wash of flavor is so purely pleasureable you don't immediately pick up the layers of flavors. It's a creamy chocolate-vanilla rush to start with. You almost don't think to stop and swish it around. The second sip is where you pick up all the notes that contribute to the whole. The base beer is creamy and chocolatey, balanced with dark roasted malts more than hops. The bourbon is a bronzy patina, a note, not a symphony, riding on top of the porter. Behind the chocolate is a fruit note that must be grape but actually inclines more toward cherry. Raven Mad, like a good winter beer, warms in the mouth and keeps warming down into the stomach. I have no doubt that it will age beautifully and unpredictably. Which flavors will come forward and when? Have to put a few bottles in the cellar and see.
Incidentally, the label is clever but slightly misleading. It's a cheesy 50s horror motif, done poorly in 3-D. They hook a pair of 3-D glasses on a bottle so you can see just how poorly the effect comes off. I assume that's intentional, too--fifties 3-D was mostly a gimmick. I cracked it not expecting such a sophisticated beer. It's one of the best barrel aged beers I've had, and an absolute must for porter and stout fiends. I would say it's no less a must-buy than Abyss. Definitely pick up a bottle or six while they're still available.
Malt: "Humongous amount of chocolate malt and roasted barley"
Other: Aged in pinot and Jack Daniels casks.
Availability: BridgePort only made 1,300 cases (15,600 bottles), and they released them a week before Halloween, so supplies are probably dwindling.