I’m going to tell you about what is certainly one of my two or three favorite bottles of beer I’ve tasted in my insanely long career as a wine and beer buyer and the literal thousand or so beers I sample, every year. (not “drink“, “sample“; a sip or two and mostly spit. Nobody can drink that much beer and not have a liver the size of a Kia Sportage) All you folks who are headed out to the grocery store or booze shop to pick up your usual knee-jerk Chardonnay (God Save Us) or six pack o’ precocious Pilsner – even a craft one – or that one-size-fits-all Pinot Noir, just listen the hell up for a moment, okay? I’ma do you a solid, here.

I grant you we are really only one, one and a half generations away from being an entire nation of Bud-swillin’ dunderheads, so no one needs to feel too terrible about opting for their comfort zone in holiday imbibing. BUT we CAN, mercifully be past all that, if we choose. And that is what this post is all about…


For far too long, the Conventional Wisdom was unchallenged: Chardonnay with every fuggen thing on your holiday table, sparkling wine ONLY for toasts and New Year’s Eve. The only beer even considered (and not for any host/hostess who was concerned with being considered sophisticated) was one of the Dishwater Pilsners: Bud, Bud LIGHT (a truly sorry can o’ suds), Coors/Coors Light, Miller Lite, or Bargain Alternatives that were basically the same thing. So…what’s the point?

STOUT!Dark Beers!: Belgian Quads, Barleywines, Stouts, American-style Imperial Stouts, Russian Imperial Stouts, big Porters, even Scottish Wee Heavys. The big malt Behemoths. You may well be one of those folks who STILL think that all Dark Ales are bitter and ponderous and too dense to drink with a substantial dinner. And, in some cases, that’s true. But it is certainly not a universal truth. Many, MANY big Stouts are notably sweet. Even those which are lavishly hopped usually (not always) have enough of what wine/beer weenies call “stuffing” (the dissolved solids in the beer or wine) to counter the bitterness of forward hops. My long-time fave, Deschutes Brewery’s immortal “The Abyss”, runs about 85-ish IBUs, (about the same as a medium-hopped Imperial IPA) in a usual year, but the hops are mostly buried under that insane avalanche of richness and density. And that is absolutely deliberate. If The Abyss was not that aggressively hopped, it would drink almost sickly-sweet, like one of those syrupy anomalies like Southern Tier “Creme Brulee” or Brouwerij Huyghe “Delirium Noel” or even Anheuser Busch Chicago’s “Bourbon County”, all beers that make me recoil as though I had seen a cobra. Those will probably NOT be a pairing with anything on your table, even dessert, as most are sweeter than your dessert.

Sweet as a stolen Kiss but not a great dinner guest.

But that leaves the entire rest of the Stout Continuum and that brings us to…

Crux Fermentation Project [BANISHED] Series “Tough Love” Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout.

Quite a mouthful, eh? It damned sure is and in both senses of that term. “Tough Love” has a particular provenance, for us beer geeks, that makes what is in the 2020 bottle, while delightful and shocking, no surprise at all.

The aforementioned “The Abyss” – what I have frequently referred to as “The best beverage of any kind that I have ever tasted” – was invented during the tenure of Larry Sidor as Deschutes brewmaster, the very same Larry Sidor who is now co-owner and brewmaster at Crux Fermentation Project of Bend, Oregon, which he started in 2012, with two stunningly accomplished partners, Paul Evers and Dave Wilson, both of whom have now moved on. Larry was the prime driving force behind the formulation of the original Abyss, back in 2006. It quickly became one of the US’s top two or three American-style Imperial Stouts and remains that to this day.

Crux Owner/Brewmaster, Larry Sidor

Larry’s stated goal in opening Crux was to make more barrel-aged beers and the first Tough Love followed in year two, after there was time enough to actually do barrel aging at all. It was, as you’d expect, very good. It was not, to my tastes, in Abyss Territory but it was smooth and rich and incredibly well made and more than upheld Larry’s lofty standards. In successive years I have noted yearly, consistent improvement in Tough Love; Larry tweaking and recalibrating and refining his vision for the beer.

Here in 2020 – the worst fucking year in the last 100 years’ history of this whirling dirtball we call Home – Tough Love has finally, in my (sadly not so) Humble Opinion, ARRIVED.

Tough Love 2020 is – and I want to say this unequivocally – one of the very best American OR World Stouts I have ever tasted; absolutely in the Top Three. It has, again IMO, finally equaled, if not surpassed The Abyss.

Tough Love is somewhat sweet; a near-perfect touch of malt sweetness that is amply balanced by 70 IBUs of firm but unobtrusive hops. It sports some oak-smoked wheat and malted rye in the mash bill and shows a touch, a flattering dash of smoke, again balanced by all the opulence around it. On the palate, it offers up forward notes of coffee – sorry, COFFEE – bittersweet chocolate, oaky vanilla, black cherries, plums, toffee, molasses, leather, faint saline, and a brambly suggestion of tree bark, like drinking it out in the forest. It is, absolutely, dense and chewy but lays on the palate like a proper Scotch ale and completely avoids the cloying oil slick you find in so many Imperials.

SO…this interfaces with your holiday dining by offering the exact contrasting food pairings as your reflex crap beer, your compulsory Chardonnay, or that omnipresent bottle o’ astringent Pinot. Anyone eating oysters, in any form, even in your turkey stuffing, OWES it to themselves to at least try a big Stout like Tough Love with those dishes, especially if you’re riding bareback and just shooting the briny little darlings straight out the shell. The conventional pairing with oysters – and seafood in general – is sparkling wine or a French Loire Valley Melon de Bourgogne. And both work. But a Stout marries with the briny character of most shellfish as though it was invented for God’s wedding. The salt and malt create such a startling frisson in your mouth that most people to whom I’ve offered oysters or lobster or mussels with a good Stout immediately go wide-eyed and involuntarily say, “Oh, Wow!

The same principle works with turkey. The nutty, roasty flavors in your turkey – especially the sort of spice flavors which would kill most white wines – just meld seamlessly with the warmth and hopulence of the Stout, letting you taste the meat and the ale with perfect clarity.

I say all this because, of all the dozens and dozens of American Stouts I have tasted in the past 25 years, Tough Love may well be the best food ale of the lot. EVERY aspect of this beer is in balance and distinct and none of them dominate in the heavy-handed way that I find in about 70% of all our native Stouts. Tough Love and The Abyss – and Lost Abbey “Serpent” and River North “Avarice” and several others in the top tier – are all distinct as snowflakes. Where Tough Love is sweet, Abyss is sweeter. Where Serpent has a gorgeous black coffee finish, Avarice finishes with cocoa and tart cherries. They are ALL different and, if you ask your local beer-monger about it, you’ll find one, GUARANTEED, that will change your mind about Stout as a food ale.

Tough Love 2020, for all my purposes, is Perfect. It leaves NOTHING to be desired. It’s malty, rich, deep, complex, chewy, BALANCED, food-friendly, complete, and immensely thoughtful; one of the brainiest jobs of crafting a great beer to a certain flavor/texture profile ever, and then knowing that rarest of all brewing wisdom – When To Stop.

My Top Three is now The Abyss, Lost Abbey Serpent, and Crux Tough Love, in no particular. With other beer styles, you might ask me tomorrow and get three new answers. With Stout, the three usually remain until something comes along to knock one out.

2020 Crux {BANISHED} Tough Love: 100 Points

‘Nuff said.

Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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