The two beers that I received from Crux Fermentation Project, earlier this week, can be reviewed in just one word:
That’s it. Thanks for reading and remember to tip your server!
I’ll try to make this brief because it’s really very simple: Crux, as we have all come to know them, (because “Crux Fermentation Project” is a mouthful…literally and figuratively) is one of the most purely accomplished breweries in the US. No brewer is going to argue with that and very few beer fans would. They operate on a plane with Deschutes and Dogfish and Stone and Jolly Pumpkin and Cigar City and maybe a dozen other breweries whose brewmasters have established that the name on the label guarantees something exceptional in your glass. There is no such thing as a “Meh” Crux beer. The only real question is to what degree will these beers push our pleasure buttons. And Crux, like those other breweries mentioned, never rests on their laurels. In fact, as with Deschutes – both before, during and after Larry Sidor, Crux brewmaster and co-owner, was there – Crux keeps tweaking and evaluating and improving even their greatest successes.
So, along comes Crux “Tough Love” [BANISHED] Series Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, the 2019 edition, an ale which, only last year, I reviewed on this site, saying, “I am compelled, at six and a half years in, to state right here that Crux’s signature Imperial Stout – along with Barleywine the style closest to my heart – has finally come to its realization, its entry into its ultimate perfection (which may never happen, at least in Larry Sidor’s mind), and its ultimate stature as one of America’s definitive Stouts.”
Let me state this publicly: I am a big ‘ol Dumb Ass. I sold Larry Sidor and (Crux Assistant Brewmaster) Cam O’Connor short. I figured that what I was tasting was the best anybody was going to do with a lightly infused, Bourbon barrel aged, American Imperial Stout.
I was wrong. Flat-damned WRONG.
If you’ve ever read this website more than maybe twice, you have probably come across a mention of Deschutes’ big Imperial Stout, The Abyss. It was, when I first tasted it and even now, the best liquid of any kind that I have ever poured down my gullet. That DOES include wines and whiskeys and all other beers and aperitifs and clear spirits and ginger beer (my other obsession), and milk and coffee and whatever else you can think of. The Abyss is, to me, Perfect…
And so is Crux Tough Love.
As Larry Sidor, during his eight years as Deschutes’ brewmaster, was largely responsible for formulating and crafting The Abyss, it only makes sense that if any brewery was going to hit that same standard, it would be Larry, first…maybe only.
When I took the first sip of this 2019 edition, I was leaning forward, elbows on my desk, just finished taking in the roasty aromas wafting from the glass. I looked at it for a moment and then tipped it back…and slammed back into my chair like I do when the plane takes off at SeaTac. What I actually said was, “Whoa!” and a couple of other unintelligible sounds of surprise/pleasure. MY wife was sitting next to me and, as usual, was more lucid and direct: “Mmmm, that’s GOOD!”
How good? Well, that part took me about two, three minutes and four small sips. I do NOT accept the proposition that any Stout I ever taste will be substantially better than The Abyss. This one is NOT better than The Abyss. But I also would not, before those first sips, have accepted the idea that anything was likely to be as good as The Abyss. I have always been willing to be wrong about both those propositions but I would need Proof, iron-clad evidence, in a glass, that somebody had finally done Deschutes one better.
I’m an unapologetic Stout Freak. I drink Stouts and Barleywines and Belgian Quads and Scotch ales in the middle of summer, on 99 degree days. Outdoors. I have made a Point and a real effort to find and taste every single Stout I can find, even to the extent of paying friends in other parts of the country to ship me things I can’t get in Seapatch, like Three Floyds “Dark Lord” and Cigar City’s “Hunahpu’s” (we now have CCBC here!)and “Abraxas” (we now get Perrennial here!), Toppling Goliath, Tree House, Bottle Logic, Funky Buddha, and maybe thirty others. I travel a bit, too, which is how I found River North, in Denver, which makes two of the Top Ten Imperials I’ve ever tasted, “Avarice” and “Mister Sandman”, which may well be the two most overlooked Stouts (from America’s #1 overlooked brewery) in the country. I have tasted ALL of these since I first tried The Abyss and not one of them was at all better and only two of them were even in the same stratum.
And one of those two was the 2018 Tough Love.
Tough Love [BANISHED] 2019 is as good. Every bit as good.
It’s made with dark roasted malts, malted rye, and oak-smoked wheat, and judiciously, even delicately infused with blackstrap molasses, vanilla bean, brewers licorice, and cherry bark. It is then aged in wet Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels for a year. I think maybe the folks at Crux knew they had broken some sort of ceiling. I have no proof of that (I could just ask I guess, but probably won’t) but I took the brilliant new label change as proof of that theorem. An ale called “Tough Love” should have a tough image and, as you can see here, it had a Cool image but not especially tough.
The new label looks like somebody’s battle armor from “Game of Thrones”. Check out the little daggers and the chevron where the Crux appears. Slick. Beautiful. Tough.
And so is what’s inside.
This is dead-solid classic Imperial Stout, not just of that squishy “American-style Imperial Stout” category, which includes beers that have almost nothing in common except being dark. Lost Abbey “Serpent” and Perrennial “Abraxas” could hardly taste more different but both are American-style Imperial Stouts. “Imperial Stout”, though, has a Context. The “imperial” part came from the (debatable historical) fact of its being created for the court of Katherine the Great of Russia, where everybody was looking for a beer you could stand a scimitar up in but had to go to England to finally get it made. “Russian Imperial Stout” is the template for Tough Love and it is an actual Thang, with parameters.
Crux calls it “an hommage” to the Russian Imperial Stout, which is respectful but not entirely accurate. There is stuff going on in this bottle that is not happening in about 95% of all the RIS I’ve tasted. For one thing – Oh, Leapin’ Jeebus’! – the BOURBON! Tough Love 2019 is drenched, saturated, awash in grainy, oaky, caramelly deliciousness; a broad, boozy overlay to a feast of ground coffee, molasses, licorice, vanilla bean, woodsmoke, bittersweet chocolate, dried cherries, black currants, and a deep-pile roasted flavor that never once slips over into the sort of cigar ash/burnt toast clumsiness that I taste in literally dozens of Stouts, lately.
Here’s the difference from The Abyss: Deschutes got the incredibly crafty idea of taking the natural flavors you’d get from just roasting grains and then augmented those, adding no flavors that would not be present, anyway. They added cherries and vanilla beans and licorice and chocolate and erected a towering edifice of amped-up but compatible flavors. Unlike the Imperial Stouts that use cinnamon and Mexican chocolate and marshmallows and graham crackers and hand tools and baseball bats and mink pelts and whatever, both The Abyss and Tough Love take what natures gives them and lays it all out in a discrete, easily identifiable tapestry that makes perfect sense but shoots miles past average Stouts.
I’m not making a judgment, here, despite what you think, about authentic Imperials and those uber-creative ones. But RIS is a modern ale and not just a museum piece. The overarching consideration is, “What was the goal, here, and how was it approached…and did it work?”
As an hommage to Kate da Great’s razor-strop Cossack palate or as a statement of what the modern day Imperial Stout can be, Tough Love [BANISHED] Series Bourbon Aged Imperial Stout…Works, like a freakin’ charm. 100 Points
When it comes to the modern day Red Ale…I’m probably even a little more picky than I am about Stouts. I know that we tend to lump together Amber ales and Reds and consider them virtually the same thing but I would beg to differ about that. A great Red isn’t going to have very much in common at all with a fine Amber. The Red will frequently show more spice and more malt and more hops. It is not made primarily as an easy drinking, unchallenging everyday ale. Yeah, there are beers that straddle the lines and those that show some Red traits in a less forward framework. But Reds like Mad River “Jamaica Red” and Cigar City “Togobaga” and Bear Republic “Rocket Red” and Speakeasy “Prohibition” and especially my fave, 21st Amendment “Toaster Pastry”, really don’t have much in common with Fat Tire and Mac & Jack’s “African Amber” and Rogue’s “Captain Sig’s”.
So, when I got the email that explained the reasoning behind Crux Fermentation Project “Mountain Traffic”, I held my breath because I have been hoping, for a while, that Crux would eventually approach the interface between Amber and Red and maybe even the undefined region that is the Northwest Pale Ale. I very much wanted Larry’s take on this vague stylistic stratum and, BOY(!), did it get it. Crux “Mountain Traffic” is an immediate, rounded, incredibly approachable, eminently drinkable, perfectly executed Red ale. And a perfect Amber ale. In one can. Available now. WOW, Part Two.
Like Toaster Pastry, Mountain Traffic serves up the resins – it’s labeled as a “Hoppy Red Ale” – but then shovels up loads of mild baking spices, red currants, Bing cherries, rhubarb, and grace notes of sweet herbs, pink grapefruit, tangerine, and bay leaves. The hops emphasize their citrus, spice, and floral attributes, instead of forthright bitterness. The hops bill is complex and inventive: Styrian Goldings and Centennial hops in the kettle; Centennial, Vic Secret, & Denali in the hop back. There are six malts used: Debittered Black, Special B, Cara45, CaraMunich, Dextra Pils, and 2 Row. It’s a complicated set of ingredients that are played with consummate skill and all coaxed into a beautiful harmony and unity. It is damnably easy to drink; almost addictively so. It’s gorgeous in the glass, an actual red instead of the dark amber of many Red ales. I would not characterize this as newbie’s ale because that would probably drive off many hopheads but anyone who prefers hops-forward beers is likely to at least consider adopting this as their house pour for as long as it’s available. 98 Points
These two ales are all the evidence that any sensible person needs to conclude that Crux Fermentation Project is well and truly into its maturity as what they gave every indication of being from their outset: one of America’s great breweries. They are solidly in my own Top Ten and Larry Sidor is indelibly ensconced in my Top Five American brewers. There is prodigious thought and deliberation and ultimate skill evident in every bottle released by Crux and I’m going to refrain from saying that this new Stout, this new Red, are the best possible expressions of their styles because the last time I said something like that, I wound up having to admit to being a “big ol’ dumb-ass”. I have NO earthly idea what sort of form the 2020 Tough Love may take but I’m tingling with anticipation and the frank desire to have my expectations foiled.
Crux is one of America’s greatest breweries. NOW. Today. And the proof is in every can, every bottle, every sip.