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Friday, February 11, 2011

Reviews: Widmer W '11, Lompoc Batch 69, and Full Sail Black Gold

Tis the season of big blacks. Last month I watched Upright brew their annual Oyster Stout, Fort George is in the midst of Stout Month, and at least three breweries have new stouts out on shelves.

Okay, they're not all called stouts: one is a Baltic porter. These all have a common ancestor, though. I reviewed a bit of the history on Wednesday of how porters became the first international style--go have a look if you missed it. English breweries were shipping strong porter to the Baltic states by the beginning of the 19th century. These were the ur-beers that led to the styles of imperial stouts and Baltic porters. For some reason, Russians felt locally-brewed porter wasn't much good, so they relied on imports. Elsewhere in the region, brewers did brew the style, and there the line split.

Over the centuries, Baltic porters emerged looking a little different from English imperial stouts. The porters produced in Poland and the Baltic states are mostly lagers. They are as strong in alcohol as imperial stouts (7-10%), but lighter-bodied. They are silkier and lighter, less gloppy. You often find roasty notes--sometimes so intense they bend toward the sour--or plummy port-like notes. Imperial stouts, by contrast are gloppy--they're dense and rich and generally very intense. Their intensity makes them a huge favorite of beer geeks--who strangely aren't anywhere near as charmed by their close kin, the Baltics.

I, however, am charmed by them all, and was delighted to see all these releases emerge at roughly the same time.

Widmer W '11 KGB Imperial Stout
Old-timers were not surprised to see KGB make it to the W series. It has been a Gasthaus favorite since 1998, although brewer Ben Dobler says each iteration is a little different. So was the bottled version, which Ben describes thus:
"We've always been right around 9-10% ABV, and 65-75Bu's. The main change in this version is the addition of Midnight Wheat from Briess. I think adding this malt helped round out some of the roughness and harshness we were getting by relying on Chocolate, Roast, and Black malt to give us color as well as flavor. The beer is ridiculously smooth, in my opinion. It surprised me how well we hid 9.3% ABV."
This beer was released more than a month ago, and I've heard quite different reactions in that time. Some of my friends raved, agreeing with Ben that the alcohol was very well-concealed. Others, however, have complained that the body is too thin for a Russian imperial; some also dispute Ben's characterization of smoothness and call the roastiness harsh. Fortunately, you have me to resolve these differences

Tasting Notes
In the manner of Solomon, I shall split the baby: both fans and critics are correct. KGB is an intense beer, highlighted by a massive wallop of roasted barley. People are more or less susceptible to intense flavors; some love 97% cacao dark chocolate while others (like me), need a little moderation. Widmer pushes the envelope. Interestingly, there's a competing sweetness that runs through the palate, long and sweet, with a molasses finish.

The body? Definitely thinner than most imperial stouts, which got me thinking. Since this must surely have been intentional, what was the goal with KGB? I swished and swallowed, noting a bit of soot, as if from Victorian England. But that roast note--so similar to some Baltics I've had. This is a beer that goes a long way toward reuniting the two branches of the family.

My first pour came last month, when Widmer and the Brew Crew unveiled their latest Collaborator. In attendance was Rob Widmer, who noted that he was excited to throw some in the cellar and see how it ages. I agree: that roast note will fall back a bit, and I expect the sweet note to deepen and acquire some of the port of a Baltic. In six months or a year, this may seem a lot more like a Baltic porter than an imperial stout--and will probably reach its potential. Rating it now, I'd call it a B, but I expect it could rise substantially--and possibly even be an A before it's all done. [9.3%, 21.5° P, 65 IBUs]

Lompoc Batch 69
As is their wont, the folks from Lompoc have provided exactly one detail about this beer: it was lagered. Beyond that, I have no idea what ingredients or processes they used. That detail is important, though. Mostly the American Baltics I've seen have been fermented with ale strains and taste a lot more like imperial stouts.

Tasting Notes
This is the second year for Batch 69, and last year's (which I missed), was much lauded. I'm not sure if the recipe changed or I'm just out of step with the raters on BA and RateBeer, but I was less impressed. It looks great--an ebony body and a mousse-like mocha head. There wasn't a lot of nose, but I picked up chocolate and nuts ... and cabbage. Hmm. The palate was appropriately lager smooth, but there was not much depth to the flavor. It's mainly sweet, lacking any roast. And the sweet is overdone--by about half-way through the first glass, my mouth was coated. The cabbage is there, too, mildly, but not tastily. (Perhaps the Lompockians were taking the Polish inspiration too literally?) I'd be willing to give it another shot, but based on this bottle, I'd rate it a C+. [7.7%]

Full Sail Black Gold
The imperial stouts made by American breweries are, often as not, aged in bourbon barrels. This innovation takes us yet another step away from what I expect Barclay Perkins tasted like in 1825. Full Sail alternates between Imperial Porter and Black Gold, brewing one each year. They secure the barrels over a year in advance, then let that year's batch sit for a full 12 months on the wood, aging. The result is always a characteristically American product, rich and sweet, full of candy and chocolate sweetness. But not all are created equally.

This year's Black Gold was aged in 18- and 20-year old Kentucky bourbon barrels. Wholly apart from the contribution of bourbon, barrel-aging is its own art. Wood breathes and becomes a part of the environment. If a barrel is kept cool or warm, wet or dry, these factors will affect what's inside--especially over the course of two decades. Full Sail blended the batches together to produce the final version of Black Gold, but as a service to beer bloggers, they kegged up a tiny portion straight from the barrels and served them straight.

The beer aged in the 1990 barrels (just after Nirvana's debut "Bleach" came out) was incredibly smooth and sweet. Absolute decadence--and too much, for some people. (John Harris felt it was cloying.) But the beer aged in the '92 barrels (that was the year Bill Clinton was first elected president) was a little hot and sharp. I might have admired it more if it weren't served alongside the final version and the '90. I've seen a bit of speculation that the sharpness must come from the age difference in the barrels, but I doubt that. These are old barrels, and a 10% difference in age can't account for the harshness differential. I suspect, rather, that they were handled differently. For some reason, the '92 barrels ended up hotter and sharper.

The final version is the Goldilocks blend--just right. The hot notes and the intensely sweet notes from the two blends are smoothed out. The result is like liquid tiramisu--rich, chocolately, and creamy. A bit of the wood is present, and the bourbon provides a clear note, but not an oppressive one. Barrels breathe, which allow the flavor components of the beer to blend and harmonize more fully--something that hasn't happened yet in the KGB. Black Gold is released ready to drink, no aging necessary. (It will, of course, continue to evolve in the cellar.) I remembered a Black Gold that was insanely good and mentioned it to John. "2006," he said, without hesitation. That one is the standard against which other Black Golds will be measured, and 2011's batch is just a notch below. But just a notch--this is a very, very good beer. Since '06's was an A, I guess I'll call this an A-. Ah, screw it, let's call that '06 an A+ and leave this an A. [11.4%, 37 IBUs]

Update: I just got an email from Hopworks announcing the release of a tuned up Kronan:
Deep like the Baltic Sea and as massive as the Swedish ship Kronan sunk in its icy waters, our Bourbon Barrel-Aged Baltic Porter emerges from the depths after being stowed away for a year in Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels. This beer brings to the surface a frothy tan head and rich aroma combining malt notes of chocolate, caramel and dark fruit with the essence of vanilla, smoke and oak of Bourbon. Made with bottom fermenting lager yeast, Kronan the Barbarian is as rich and strong as an Austrian actor but with more complexity. [9.2%, 19° P, 25 IBUs]


  1. KGB = "The body? Definitely thinner than most imperial stouts, which got me thinking. Since this must surely have been intentional, what was the goal with KGB?"

    Yea, Jeff, It's intentional! It's like getting a beer with no head or beer that has has been infected or cloyingly sweet. That's intentional too! Brewers always "intend" to make something that's taste drastically wrong for a reason.

    Whatta putz.....

  2. Anon, truly a profile in courage, that comment. But, since it is typical of a certain kind of criticism, I will address it:

    1) If one of the most successful production breweries in America releases a beer with a certain quality--a neutral quality, not an off-flavor--we have to consider two possibilities: a) they don't know their asses from a hole in the ground and screwed up, or b) they intended to brew a beer with that quality. You have selected the wrong answer. (And worse, you compare a neutral quality to off-flavors, trying to keep your finger on the scales.)

    2) If you have an opinion, go ahead and offer it, rather than resorting to simple name-calling, a tactic worthy of five-year-olds, and

    3) Have the courage to lend your name to the conversation. Strong opinions are great, calling people putzes behind the cover of anonymity...less so.

  3. Hilarious. I love that beer that isn't super thick is akin to beer that's infected.

    It sounds great to me. Making an imperial stout that isn't thick and under-attenuated is a real challenge, and frequently allows a lot of those smokey, rough-around-the-edges flavors (sooty as you described them) from the roast come through. I'll be giving it a try, if it makes it out the frigid midwest.

  4. @ Flagon of Ale:

    I'm not sure where in the Midwest you're located, but I just received an email from the Four Firkins in MN mentioning that they had just received the W'11.

  5. Thanks Chris! I'm in the Twin Cities not far from the Four Firkins at all. Been a while since I've paid them a visit, so I'll have to head out there.

  6. I really enjoyed KGB. While it's not on par with The Abyss, it's a solid beer and an AMAZING value. I bought a few extra bottles and will stash 'em away for a year or so. Can't wait to see how they transform. Maybe I'll pick up a few more before they sell out.

    I'm glad Widmer rolled this out at such a low price point. I expect it will introduce the style to a whole new group of consumers.