So, it is that time of the year again! In fact, it is a bit late seeing we are just out of Winter. However, with a cool breeze and overcast skies, along with a federal election and Wallabies game, there was enough foreboding signs to want us to keep indoors and do a bit of drinking. Unfortunately, this year I was also feeling under the weather after a long week at work and having come down with a bad cold.
Still, luckily this year I had a secret weapon to bring to the tasting to take the limelight off me and my zombie manner.
With my girlfriend down for the weekend, I made the most of Hannah's passion for cheese and abilities in the kitchen to find some flavours to compare and contrast the beers against. And can I say from the outset, she did an amazing job, and made it the best imperial stout tasting I have ever had. Paradoxically, through the cheeses and Guinness chocolate cake she organised for the event, it was these outshining the beers that made the tasting the best ever.
The Tarago Tiple Cream Brie was one of the softest cheese we had available, and even though it is quite soft and creamy to help coat the mouth to help wipe off the beer flavours, there was also quite a bit of sharpness to offset as well. There was still quite a bit of creamy sweetness that went with the malt sweetness that many of the imperial stouts had, but there was also a saltiness in the cheese that I found quite interesting. Combine that with the powdery rind and this chesse was actually quite good at contrasting the beer quite well more than I would have expected for the style.
Swiss Gruyere was really up my ally being quite sweet semi hard cheese. The sweetness does really dominate across most of the palate especially with a touch of honey up front, and while it is also said to be nutty, I am almost getting something that reminds me of a vegemite yeastiness to bring a bit of savory balance to the sweetness at the back of the chesse. I think this one was one of my favs for bringing a different sort of sweetness to the malt sweetness I was getting from the imperial stouts, but then also having the dark yeast character I actually get from many of the beers. Quite intriguing.
Sticking with Europe, the Dutch Gutshofer Ziegenkase was another semi hard cheese with just a slight bit more crumble and darkness to that of the previous, with a real mustiness to go with its sweetness. It tastes a bit stinkier than it smells, and not sure if it is from that, but some acidic character to make it quite different from the other cheeses. Against the imperial stouts, this was probably as strong a cheese as we needed to offset the beer, but there was still some good mouthcoating qualities in this cheese, if a little bit gritty as well in texture, to make it a good pairing cheese. Its almost comes across a bit smoky when tasting it against some of the stouts, just to bring another taste to the table. Probably don't dig it much by itself, but was good with the beer.
Back to sweet, semi hard cheeses, probably one of my favourites to have by itself with the Chebris, which had a much more even sweetness than the Gruyere, balanced of with some nuttiness and musk character to create a much more rounded taste just by itself. I don't much like the cardboardy rind, but with a slight caramel or toffee character coming from the cheese, this was probably my favourite cheese from the tasting.
Getting even sweeter is the Ford Farm English Cheddar which has a really creamy sweetness to it, but still a bit crumbly. Still, the sweetness is even a bit overbearing for me, especially as the cheese really covers you mouth in it, and has a density to make it hard to get off your tastebuds. Still, with the higher alcohol of the beers on hand, the thinning quality helped dispense of the creamy sweetness.
Then, of course with Hannah involved, there had to be a couple of blue cheeses. The Fourme D' Ambert was quite mild for a blue, with some good creamy gooey sweetness to offset the musky blue flavour in the mould. Obviously I found this one easier to take, and did not outdo the beers as much at the St Agur, which is one of Hannah's favourite blue cheeses. While the St Agur still has some balance between sweet and mould, the mould is definitely strong, with a sharper flavour than the muskiness of the blue in the Ambert. The St Agur is probably just too strong to be pairing against beers as generally I could still taste this cheese after having a couple of sips of beer. It was only the strongest of Imperial Stouts that came close to being at the same flavour level at the St Agur, while I found the Ambert to be a good contrast without being too bitey.
Another special guest was a return visit from Miro, who like last year brought a beer to share and even some cheeses. The Le Dauphin was easily the most creamy and gooey of all the cheeses on offer, much easier for those like myself not really use to cheese to contend with on our journey. While not big on flavour, being a texture based beer drinker, I really enjoyed filling a cracker with this and letting it simply coat my mouth in creaminess. Miro also brought along a vintage cheddar, which Stass and I had used previously to great effect in a previous imperial stout tasting. This one seemed a bit sharper than the one we had (think the previous on had been smoked as well to round it off a bit), but still went well with the beer, especially with the vegemite yeasty character I found in it.
Ok, finally for the beers themselves (best enjoyed while wearing silly hats of course).
Starting with a brewery everyone would know of, the Sierra Nervada Narwhal, it was a really well balanced beer to start on while the tastebuds were fresh. That classic licorice character that comes from the melding of dark malt and alcohol was instantly present for me, and was happy to have let it sit and age for 8 months if it allowed this balanced character come out.
Deciding to go with a bit of an american journey with the imperial stouts to start with, we continued onto the Clown Shoes Vampire Slayer. This one really brought out some smoothness in the beer. Again, I had been holding onto this beer for quite a while (actually, I had gotten it for my birthday 9 months before) and there was an interesting roundedness with it. Reading the bottle, I saw there was some smoked malts in their, and that the wood they had been smoked in was hickory (a flash back to my own Hickory Stickery Bock). It sort of had that wood aged quality without having had the age. It really helped bring a mellowness to the alcohol and was probably the best balanced imperial stout of the whole tasting, along with chocolate, coffee, just a touch of malt roast/smoke that helped keep back the alcohol heat in the beer. A very well made beer, and just makes me want to try more from Clown Shoes.
Seeing we had just had a stout with some wooded character, we stepped it up with the Bourbon Barrel Aged Saint Bob's Imperial Stout from Vicino Brewing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This one happened to be in a mixed case of beer we received at Goat for the boys helping in the beer judging/stewarding at this years AIBA Awards. Woah, it was pretty big. Not just with 11.5% alcohol, but with the bourbon smell that permeated massively from the bottle as soon as I opened it. This is not a beer of subtlety. Unfortunately it tasted like they had left half the bourbon in the barrel when they put the beer in with it. The alcohol was really hot, and with the bourbon smell, was just too overpowering. Still, at least it gave us a chance to see if it could handle the blue cheese in the selection, which surprisingly it could not. The best thing that could be said about the beer was that at least it had been aged to help meld the flavours a bit, but certainly was not well balanced.
Deciding it was only going to start getting messy from here after that beer, thought we had beer have the last beer our taste buds could really appreciate, so pulled out the beer Miro had brought with him. I have only tasted this beer a couple of times, and always left me pondering how it can be so smooth and just taste of quality, while still being quite different to many other high alcohol dark beers I have tried. The Brooklyn Black Ops is an 11.6% alcohol dark beer that does not have the heaviness of so many dark beers, but still retains good weight on the palate to contain the high alcohol in it. It is a bit of an enigma beer that made it the most talked about beer in the tasting, and not just because of its rarity. It was this beer where Miro's business understanding behind beer and my brewing understanding were both delved into to try and make sense of it. I remember trying this beer back in the second Good Beer Week with their Black Chocolate Stout with a dessert of blue cheese chocolate mousse. However, what I got wrong back then was not hops in the Black Ops, but the yeast. Using a second stage fermentation usual for brut biers, a champagne yeast boosts the alcohol while efficiently using the remaining sugars after a first stage ale yeast fermentation. This really dries out the beer and adds the champagne yeast character to the beer that makes it so different to many others. There is a great delicateness through the efficient nature of the beer, even though it is quite robust in the flavours in contains. This specific bottle also had the leverage of being from a 2009 vintage, and the extra time in the bottle had only improved the flavour. The sweet malt may be reduced, but the yeast and alcohol balance each other off quite well to retain the delicate balance in the beer. This is not your typical high alcohol dark beer, which makes it great to have in this sort of tasting.
Still, with my sickness making it harder for me to appreciate the beers, and the weariness of alcohol starting to hit the rest of us, it was time to finish on a clanger, a beer I tried a couple of years back and just found the alcohol way too strong. The Hargreaves Hill Russian Imperial Stout 2011 is a blockbuster at 12.3%, and when we had it when it was young for Stass' birthday a while back, the alcohol heat was just way too big, and burned the tongue to stop you from actually enjoying it. After a couple of years I thought it would be alright to come back too. Well, the alcohol has died off a bit, but only by bringing up a diacetyl character. So obviously, not a beer to have young, or to be aged, so we don't win either way. I am happy to see in later releases the alcohol has been reduced, so maybe they have learnt from this batch. Still, the alcohol stang pretty hard, and I wasn't able to go any further with the tasting.
It was also with the Brooklyn Black Ops that my favourite part of the tasting happened (well apart from when Hannah sat on my lap after it all), when Hannah pulled out her Guinness Chocolate cake. It was densely dark like a mud cake, but with a creamy icing that made it look like a Guinness in cake form (hmm, such a delicious thought...). However, there was ginger in the cake to lift it from its dense sweetness, and sour cream in the icing to offset its sweetness, so it was quite well balanced in flavour. Seeing the Black Ops came across quite dry, I thought the sweetness of the cake would make it a good pairing for the cake. Yes, yes it was!!!
With that, we come to the end of this years tasting. As usual I still have a dozen odd beers left over, so that means just one thing, we get to do this all over again next year, and the beers I have get to age for another year...Perfect!
Big thanks to everyone that made it this year, especially first timer Hannah who provided us with cheese, cake, and her lovely presence. It was easily the biggest year yet, with me running out of chairs. Still, seeing I was also running out of voice, it was good to have enough other people around to make up for me.