Full Sail recently sent me a bottle of their big, fat, brawny annual miracle, their Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout. My primary beer occasion, every year, is the arrival of a bottle of Deschutes “The Abyss” because, at heart, I am a Stout guy down to my chromosomes. I get excited by the release of any great beer. I get aroused by the arrival of siome great Stout on the order of The Abyss, Perennial “Abraxis”, pFriem Bourbon Barrel Stout, Cigar City “Huhnapu’s”, Lost Abbey “Serpent”, Crux “Tough Love”, Boneyard “Suge Knite”, Firestone Walker “Parabola”…
…and Full Sail Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout.
I don’t quite get “aroused” in the sense you’re thinking of right now but it’s really not that far off. There’s nothing that…uh…grows, or anything, but that gut-level yearning is similar. I actually list to one side as I pass my refrigerator, as though there was a tiny black hole in there, tugging at me with gravitational intensity. I managed to keep my hands off it long enough to get the bottle lightly chilled…but it was close.
There are two basic ways to approach making an Imperial Stout: First, you can make them balls-out rich and viscous, so that when they’re swirled in a glass, they coat the inside like a big red wine. These ales are frequently outright sweet, with the massive sugars retained to boost the ABV left intact. Primary examples of this are “Bourbon County Stout”, from The Brewery Formerly Known as Goose Island, Southern Tier “Creme Brulee” or “Choklat”, and Great Divide “Chocolate Yeti”. Or you can make them a little less light-bodied, filter extensively, and arrive at a medium-bodied but deep Stout that still coats the palate but without sugar-coating it. Some of those would include “Abrakas”, Boneyard “Suge Knite”, Fort George “Cavatica”, the pFrem Bourbon Barrel, Rogue “Shakespeare:, and especially my second or third favorite Stout, Lost Abbey “Sepent”. Serpent is black as Donald Trump’s soul, explosively roasted, nearly dry, and crammed with molasses, coffee, darh chocolate, figs, black currants, and vanilla. And Full Sail’s Bourbon Barrel-Aged is Serpent’s spiritual cousin.
Fact: the Pacific Northwest, for all its virtues as the arguable birthplace of the American-style IPA and our deft hand with Pales and Porters and German-style beers, is not the American hotbed of great Stout. We’re getting better but, especially in Washington, I’m hard-pressed to find ANY stout that’s built on anything like the same scale as The Abyss or Hunahpu’s. There are only a fat handful in Oregon: The Abyss, Cavatica, the pFriem, Block 15 “Super Nebula”, Suge Knite and a few others that approach epic dimensions and, out of the whole state, only The Abyss is the size of depth of Abraxas or Hunahpu’s or Parabola.
But Full Sail has been honing and burnishing and polishing its act with this beast for quite a while and it’s achieved a remarkable, black-hearted profundity that makes it a big annual event, here in IPA La-Laland.
This is a glorious bottle of ale; jet-black, complex as the main circuitry of a Cray SuperComputer, and almost entirely dry; an unsweet behemoth of a beer that stubbornly refuses to use sugar as its means of communicating depth and intensity. The flavor palate goes beyond even what I annually find in Serpent and approaches The Abyss (and this is just a partial list): Chocolate, black coffee, molasses, dried figs, brandied raisins, tobacco leaf, cigar ash, burnt sugar, horehound, stewed blackberries, black plums, cherry compote, cola nut, tar, and rich woodsmoke. The wet, vanilla-soaked barrels from Wild Turkey come roaring through but it’s an elegant, measured kind of roar and one that harmonizes beautifully. While this ale doesn’t coat your tongue, it absolutely swamps it and finishes with a resiny bitterness that melds beautifully with its chocolate notes to let it tail off with just a suggestion of sweetness. At 9.5% ABV, it’s a big beer that doesn’t stun you into submission immediately but should certainly be on your Overserved Watch List.
I’ve just been happier and happier with this ale ever since the first time I tried it and expect even more delights in the years to come. 99 Points
In that same box was a couple of bottles of Full Sail’s landmark side-project’s brand new, Session Pilsner. You may say, as I did several years ago, wasn’t the original Session lager a Pilsner? No, it was not. The original light version of Session was an American-style lager. It became wildly popular and remains so to this day but was a tad subversive. It was originally a way for craft fans to slide their newbie pals sideways into craft beer, from their knee-jerk BudMillerCoors fixation. But it wasn’t quite the same style of beer. It was a touch bigger and hoppier and used different malts from the mass-produced crap, plus having the cachet of being brewed in the Crafty Northwest, from a craft brewing icon. In this new Session Pilsner, however, Full Sail takes dead aim at the same style of those omnipresent adjunct Pilsners and simply beats Big Brewing at their own game. Session Pils is a rock-solid Pilsner; a beer that is familiar enough for craft newbies to drink and enjoy without some sort of bizarre indoctrination but made the right way; as the original European Pilsners were, instead of according to Adolpuhs Busch’s cynical, dismissive “Good Enough For Americans” version, which took the classic Pilsner recipe and cheapened every ingredient and every step of the process.
I don’t drink a lot of Pilsners but I taste a fat ton of ’em and, as opposed to ten years ago, when craft breweries made Pilsners mainly to see if they could. Back then, I’d see two or three a year – maybe. And they tended to be fairly clumsy. Now, they’re becoming ridiculously good. Session is not the same animal as Full Sail Pilsner, which was my porch-drinking obsession of all last spring, but it’s just a bit smaller in scale and just a touch less assertive in its hops. And it is stupidly refreshing; as crisp and mouth-watering as a cold Granny Smith apple and bristling with grainy goodness, mingled with some sugar cookie, lemon, and ripe pear. As that transitional beer from crap to craft, this is the logical first step in weaning Bud addicts out of their comfort zone and into Better Beer. 92 Points
Also in this box was Full Sail’s 2016 fresh hop offering, Full Sail “8 Pound” Fresh Hop Ale, a dead-solid example of a primary NW wet-hopped ale that delivers a geyser of resins and grace notes like tropical fruits, white flowers, grapefruit, lemonheads, sweet herbs, and a mild but pleasing spiciness. The main appeal of this ale is that, as a legit Pale Ale, it’s not as aggressively bitter as many fresh-hops and offers a wild drinkability that never wears thin, over repeated bottles. The crispness of it is off the charts and the fat, happy Magnum hops caress the tongue, instead of bitch-slapping it. I loved the fresh, lemony dominant notes and then the complexity behind it, especially those lurking, whispering, insinuating spices and the intimation of jasmine on the finish. Just flat-out FINE and one I’m going to hope to see again, around the time for the 2017 hops harvest. 93 Points
Full Sail’s big change of approach should, unless the PNW beer scene has descended into terminal trendiness and tribalism, help this iconic brewery squarely back into the front of mind of the average Washington/Oregon/Idaho/Alaska beer fan. These current beers crackle with life, wit, charm and a dangerous drinkability. Git Sum!