One can chart the change in craft brewing by harkening back to 1995, the year that Redhook introduced Double Black Stout, a joint venture with Starbucks resulting in an oily, aggressive, muscular beer. We were only a decade into craft brewing then, and big beers were rare, particularly so in the bottle. By the time Redhook discontinued Double Black in 2000, the big beer movement was well underway, making the decision all the more inexplicable.
Redhook has always mystified me a little bit. Unlike the breweries to the South, which seem to thrive on creativity and the churn of new products, Redhook has steadfastly stuck with a line of beers that has never been bold or distinctive. Their beers are of traditional styles, always brewed about 10% less aggressively (or 10% more blandly, take your pick) than the average for style. In short, they're not beers for the beer geek. Perhaps this is what happens when you go public (Nasdaq: HOOK) . The return of Double Black appears to signal a shift in that strategy; it's the first of the newly-minted "Limited Release" series (one can guess that the line will include big and/or experimental brews, akin to the similar 22-ounce series at Full Sail, Deschutes, and BridgePort). That's the good news. The bad news? Double Black is about 10% more bland than I had hoped for for a burly coffee-infused imperial stout.
To be sure, Double Black is a nice beer. I was surprised to see how bright it was pouring out--translucent at about a quarter of an inch, tinged with red. It was less viscous than I expected from an imperial, but sometimes coffee thins out body, so I held off judgment. The head frothed up like a nice skiff of latte foam, and I was somewhat reassured.
What I recall from the previous incarnation was intense, dry bitterness. The coffee was so strong it muscled the beer aside. I loved it, but I've been a coffee addict since I was 16. In terms of pure craft, it was out of balance. Not so with the current Starbucks-less incarnation. The coffee is a more minor note, pulling out the roasty notes of the malt. Unfortunately, the beer itself isn't bold. It's just 7%, and the body is thin. If you're going to undersize a beer, you better make sure it has some depth on the tongue. Some coffees have a delightful residual sweetness, mimicking fruit flavors. This beer has an almost strawberry note, and it's a perfect midpoint between malt and coffee (I'm not sure which element created it--maybe both?).
My final assessment is colored by expectations. The beer's a tasty little number, a sporty V-6 that is sprightly to the touch. Trouble is, I expected a muscle-bound V-8, with a deep roar and rumbling torque. I really wanted to be wowed by a tour-de-force. To switch metaphors, I came looking for the Dark Knight and I got Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It's a good beer, and a hopeful sign of things to come from Redhook. But is it too much to ask for the brewery to really get crazy?