Thursday, October 24, 2013

Imperial Stout Aged On Oak with Rye Whiskey - Tasting Notes

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Imperial Stout
Brewed: 10.28.2012

Bottled On: 1.14.2013
ABV: 10%

Appearance: black, obviously. very little opacity at edges. thick, full, tan head
Smell: vanilla and oak, woody tannins, creamy milk chocolate, earthy spice, nutty malts
woody, earthy, vanilla, mild raisin / caramel sweetness, tannins, nutty, dry finish
Mouthfeel: highish carbonation, creamy, medium-full, prickly dry finish

I try to be as blunt as I can with my assessments of my own beer — what's the point in covering up a disappointing beer, when I'm the one who has to drink it all? If a batch has a few weak spots, there's no reason to give it a handicap, but I couldn't entirely help it with my latest stab at an oak-aged, whiskey-soaked imperial stout. The handicap? It's been almost exactly a year since I brewed this one. A year is a great amount of time to let most imperial stouts age, and a lot of them really come into their own in that time frame. But as the majority of that aging time was spent in bottles — something no commercial brewery could get away with — I was definitely giving this batch the most ideal possible conditions to come into its own, and my assessments earlier this year would have been a lot harsher. After all, an imperial stout should still be pretty good after four or five months —just even better after a year. 

The reason for the handicap? Fairly simple, and a very easy mistake with this type of beer: I over-oaked it. Not to the point of ruining the beer, but enough that those extra few months in the bottle really helped to out round off the oak, mellow the tannins, and integrate the flavors. So now, a year after brewing, it's drinking relatively nicely... considering all that. I'm hoping it will be even better in another year (or four), assuming the tannins fade at a faster rate than sweet vanilla notes from the wood. This was a very small 3 gallon batch, and went onto 1.4 ounces of medium-toast American oak cubes, for two months. You might guess that less oak for a longer amount of time would lead to more integrated, mellower flavors, and this may prove that theory by embodying the reverse. I hit it too hard, too fast.

Regardless of procedure, I still can't help but wonder if oak cubes and chips just don't impart the depth of flavor and nuance that a barrel does. This take is too harsh and tannic, too superficially 'woody'. Hints of vanilla and spice are there too, but have to compete with the harsher notes. While I still overall enjoy the oak character now that it has aged, it's definitely one-dimensional. And thinking about it now, I have yet to taste a homebrew — of my own creation, or anyone else's — that captures real barrel-aged flavor through use of chips or cubes.  This is particularly true when it comes to bourbon barrels, and I suspect that it may be impossible for a homebrewer to reproduce the deep, ingrained flavor of bourbon that has been given years to soak into the vast porous network that a barrel offers. I would love to be proven wrong, but so far I haven't seen it. Soaking oak cubes into a jar of whiskey for a few weeks will be nice, but not the same. If you only want a mild, underlying touch of oak anyway? That seems more obtainable.

My other issue with this beer is, I hate to say, the recipe. I really don't know what I was thinking when I wrote this one up originally, but there's just not enough roasted character. I prefer stouts with a strong, dry roast, and much less of the prune / raisin character that caramel malts seem to inevitably produce in this context. My recipe featured a moderate percentage of chocolate rye malt, a smaller percentage of regular chocolate malt, and a very low percentage of roasted barley. There are various ways in which this recipe was perhaps over-complicated, but most glaring to me now is the lack of roasted barley as the leading harbringer of roast. The result is a beer that completely dodges the nasty cloying pruney sweetness of my first imperial stout (a Belgian take), but that errs too far in the other direction, dry and sharp and susceptible to competing flavors, like large doses of tannic oak.

Click here for the recipe and initial notes for this batch.


  1. At least you know you have something to set aside, and from time to time open one up and appreciate how it matures. Best of luck on your next stab at it.

    1. Thanks! I always try to set aside bottles from my batches that have a chance of aging well, but I'm really going to take my time with this one. I have a feeling it may improve quite a bit with some years on it, as it's quite dry (I'm not always a fan of stouts getting sweeter with age), and the oak will continue to integrate with the other flavors. Should be interesting.


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