For those of us past a certain age, it’s almost impossible to hear or read the word “Sprocket” without picturing Mike Meyers’ irrational SNL skit of the same name. It’s also nearly impossible to say it without inserting the “ch” between the “S” and “p” and give it the Germanic “Sssh-PROCKETS!“, complete with throat-wrenching glottal stops, of that warped and oddly compelling little piece of Meyersian insanity. It has come to have a near-universal connotation of inspired, non-linear lunacy and, with my appetite for the unhinged and bizzare, was the only reason I tuned into the frequently-unfunny SNL during the Meyers era. So, any beer with the word “Sprocket” in its name comes with some Baggage that we fans of Dieter and his Monkey find it hard to get around.
Luckily, as applied to Stone’s new Black Rye Kölsch-style ale, we don’t even have to try.
Stone “Sprocketbier” is part of a contest that Stone started mainly to give all the budding brewers working on staff at the Escondido Mothership an outlet for their crazoid brewing notions. Two-person teams conspired on their choice of what would preferably be some totally out-of-the-box beer idea, working under the guidance of one of Stone’s brightest talents, Research & Small Batch Manager Steve Gonzalez. Steve, to understate the case wildly, knows a thing or three about experimental brewing, so he’d be the one at Stone least alarmed at seeing what sort of mad tangents their employees harbor in the dark folds of their cerebellums while (theoretically, anyway) maintaining a near-normal outer facade. In this competition, the prize was simple: Stone makes the winning beer, invests a label and promotions into it, turns it loose on an unsuspecting public, and sends the two jokers who invented it on a cross-country promotional tour to talk about (and drink a bunch of) their creation.
Twenty separate teams of twos created beers. That number was whittled down by Gonzalez to nine and those nine were judged by a panel of three Stone bigshots: Mitch Steele, brewmaster, Steve Wagner, veteran brewmaster and co-founder, and Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone. The three finalists were an American Strong Ale, an Oatmeal Porter aged in Bourbon barrels, and a Black Rye Kölsch. Watching the video of the judging, I would have been astounded if anything but the Kölsch had won. The initial reaction of all three judges was so emphatically “Wow!” that it gave whatever came after it an agonizing climb up a sheer rockface just to get close to real consideration.
When it was done, the team of Stone QA Supervisor Rick Blankemeier and Production Warehouse Lead Robbie Chandler were handed the top prize…which turns out to be my – and your – top prize in the ongoing Quest to make the Great American Black Ale that doesn’t fall into the Stout, Porter, or IPA categories .
I’ve tasted, with no exaggeration, maybe 100 “Black” Somethings in the past two years. Black Ales have become fashionable and most breweries have at least taken a swing at ’em, if not actually wound up bottling and selling ’em. To be blunt about it, roughly 90% of them made me wonder why they even bothered. Just to be clear, I also find about 80% of all Black IPAs lacking in ways ranging from Total Fail to Near Miss. IMHO, if you’re going to sell something as a “Black ___”, there’s a set of assumptions that the consumer is perfectly within their rights to make…
1. There should be flavors native to the roasted grains used to make dark ales. You should get, to come degree, notes of molasses, coffee, chocolate, figs, currants, graham crackers, licorice, smoke, and nuts. Not every flavor has to be present but some must be.
2. There should be some degree of body; something about the ale that’s chewy and substantial, even if the intent is a lighter-bodied beer.
3. The color should be convincing; watered-down cola is not “black”.
4. And there should be a distinct “roastiness” to it. It should carry that “blackness” as a primary character trait.
5. (Bonus Points) This being the West Coast and 2014, also, it’s gotta have some hops in the mix and most that I tasted, with only a handful of exceptions, were wimpy, watery, simple, and dull. I tasted one just this afternoon, in fact, that had so little Dark Ale character to it that, when I closed my eyes, I might have sworn it was a Pale.
(The fact that these attributes only rarely fail to show in Porters and Stouts is easily explained by a couple of centuries of brewing lore and technique at the brewer’s disposal. In the Black IPA, we’re seeing the birth pangs of a new American style, so it figures there will be notable failures…none of which I’m going to name, of course, except to observe that, IMHO, even the mere attempt to create a “sessionable” Black IPA is pretty much, at this point, a doomed enterprise and I wish fervently that people would just knock it off. But that’s just me.)
Stone Sprocketbier was, in fact, named for Dieter and the immortal “Schprockets”. That makes it a lot more fun but I would still be saying this if it had been called “Bubba’s Yard Trimings”. This is maybe the finest Black Ale from outside the Stout/Porter/IPA continuum that I have tasted yet. (Lest I piss off all the German beer freaks, let me hasten to add that I don’t mention my beloved Dopplebock because it’s a lager and not an ale. Which you already knew but I’m not takin’ any chances.) Literally every attribute I mentioned above is more than met by this ingenious brew and the shock for me borders on profound because I would never have guessed in a million years that the light, sunny, laid-back character of a Kölsch would lend itself so beautifully to roasted grains. It seemed like the style would be summarily swallowed up by the roastiness and lose all its charms. Instead, the roast and the peppery rye are reined in so perfectly that they create a lovely, transparent patina of flavors that present in subtle layers while leaving the style’s succulent crispness and dry finish completely intact. It is almost incomprehensibly easy to drink and, at just 5.4% ABV, is about as fine a choice as has ever been invented for a summer beer for freakazoids like myself, who cheerfully swill Imperial Stouts in 100 degree weather.
Flavors of cafe au lait, black currants, cocoa, faint licorice, and a hint of smoke whisper on the mid-palate and harmonize oddly well with the citrus and resins of the bright, tangy hops. The finish is where the rye’s peppery spices surface; just a touch but exactly enough. Subtlety is this ale’s strong suit, which, of course, is a little counter-intuitive from a brewer of behemoths like Stone. Those expecting yet another Stone rump-shaker like the Bastards or Crime & Punishment will be disappointed but any fan of solidly fine brewing chops and the unerring skill that underlies every Stone beer of any size will find this a virtual template for how an American Black Ale can and should be made.
Bottom line: Delicious. Creative. Surprising as heck. Flawlessly done. Dripping with character and real depth of flavor. And Cool, just flat-out, by-damnit Cool. It’s totally current, wonderfully retro, and 100% Stone. And that is just about the three best things you can say for most any ale.
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