Style: Imperial IPA / Black IPA
Grade: B+ (pending "fresher" tasting)
I think I'm going to start every IPA review with a disclaimer, from now on. The more I drink IPAs, brew IPAs, and learn about hops, the more I realize how much the style is bound by the ravages of time. It is very difficult to accurately judge an IPA until you've had it within three weeks of bottling, but how often can you even find an IPA that fresh unless it's super local? It is the contradiction we face with this popular style: the demand for IPAs is so great that most IPAs on the shelves will not be in peak condition. Adding to the confusion, most breweries don't print a "bottled on" date, so you have no way to know.
Fortunately, Stone does (actually, a "best by" date, but you can work backwards), and this bottle of Sublimely Self-Righteous Imperial Black IPA is approximately two months old. That's just within the limits of when I feel I can still review an IPA at all, but trust me, I'll be on the lookout for fresher bottles of this. (Stone recommends drinking this within 120 days, which is really pushing it, if you ask me). The aroma has suffered the most from age, as I imagine quite a bit of hop character has been lost — I'm just going to assume that this smelled glorious for its first few weeks. There's a sort of dank metallic scent coming out of the glass upon first pour, a smell not unlike a jar of pennies. It's not unpleasant, but clearly muted, and missing something.
The flavor holds up much better, especially after it's had a few minutes to warm. Hop bitterness fades much more slowly than aroma, and Sublimely Self-Righteous has a firm backbone of bitter, earthy, dank hops. The flavor is more of the classic American hop character; unsurprisingly, the focus is on the harsher notes, as much of the fruitiness has probably faded. Bitter hops intersect bitter roast nicely, with a surprisingly soft finish. The malt character comes through as molasses and subtle chocolate; with the help of the bitterness, this has the sharp drying flavor of a very dark chocolate, and is crushingly dry despite the malt flavors. After a good half hour of warming (and more than half the glass missing), some of the more subtle flavors emerge: citrus, coffee, grapefruit, and a more pronounced pine character.
With age, Sublimely Self-Righteous has probably lost some of the subtle complexity a fresh bottle would have brought; what's left is a still-impressive beer that delivers what it promises: an imperial IPA with a hint of roast. Stone (and most of the other classic west coast IPA producers) seem to focus on a particular sort of hop character: dank, tongue-coating bitterness. These beers don't have the nuance and subtly of the IPAs that come out of, say, Vermont, but there's something to be said for this classic character, and the brute-force bitterness that holds up to time. I don't know that I could recommend a three or four month old bottle of this, but at two months, it's fully enjoyable. Fresh, I bet it's a treat.
Availability: Year round. 12 ounce bottle.