If you’re like me…well, first, my sympathies
But, second, you might just be a total, hard-core, born ‘n’ bred Stout Freak. And if so, you probably have a fair number of private, mental categorizations that you use to sort out the roiling tsunami of today’s dark beers in general and American-style Stouts, in particular.
There’s Russian Imperial, Irish Dry, Export, Milk, Oatmeal, Coffee, Sweet, Oyster, Cream, Pastry, Milkshake (migrated over from the IPA milieu), as well as some sub-classes of straight-forward American-style Stouts, like Imperial and Barrel-aged…and, of course, just regular ol’ Stout.
It could give a person a headache.
But, for me, as a freak who drinks Stouts year-round, in zero temperatures and the dead of summer, I buy all those styles – except for pastry and Irish Dry – but prefer just a dead-bang, uninfused, dense, roasty American-style Stout. And I’m deliberately NOT including in this post all those sought-after, safari-worthy things you have to drive to the other end of the country and stand in line to get. None of which I have ever done or would ever do. So, my favorite beer of all time, Deschutes “The Abyss” is not mentioned here (well, NOW it is, I guess…) nor is Hunahpu’s or Parabola or Dark Lord or your Toppling Goliaths or Tree Houses or Prairies, which don’t distribute hardly anywhere. There are also none of the great Stouts that come from far-flung breweries that stubbornly refuse to distribute their wares here in the Northwest, such as the immortal Maine Beer Company and Hill Farmstead or Lawson’s or any of those other critical darlings. If they don’t want to (or can’t) get beer Out West, I respect their decision but this website is not a democracy and these are, after all, theoretically at least, when you’re in “Just Wanna Drink a Fucking Stout” mode and it’s not release month or you didn’t get a lottery ticket for your two bottle limit.
These are immortals and, yes, there are a couple of small breweries listed and those are located Out Here and you may have to struggle a bit to get them – cases in point, Counterbalance, in Seattle, whose “Kushetka” is The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, and Walking Man, down there in the Columbia River Gorge, where not even light escapes, and finally, what I consider the best brewery in America at making Stouts. You probably have NOT heard of it, yet…but You Will. I will even apologize for tossing these in but, well, THEY’RE EARTH-SHAKING, and any effort to get them will be handsomely rewarded.
Great Divide Brewing, Denver, CO: “Oak Aged “Yeti” is a genuine classic, by now, having been brewed and wildly riffed-upon since the turn of the millennium. It’s fat and dense and looks kinda like diluted molasses in the glass, almost as viscous as pancake syrup and exploding with black, roasted goodness, leading with coffee and bittersweet chocolate and showing dozens of lurking grace notes. GD has now spun off a bewildering range of variations…and I am NOT kidding: Oak Aged, Espresso Oak Aged, Chocolate Oak Aged, Vanilla Oak Aged, Barrel Aged, Oatmeal, Belgian, Velvet, Chai, Chocolate Cherry, Mexican Chocolate, Big Yeti, S’mores Yeti, Bretty Yeti(!), Oatmeal Raisin, Whiskey Chocolate, Whiskey Barrel Aged, Cocoa, Red Wine Barrel Aged, 3X Oak Aged, Oaked Red, Laws Whiskey, Elder, Blonde, Campfire, Baby Yeti, Spiced, Maple Pecan, Belize Cocoa Aged, White Ash Oak Aged, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Yellow Birch, Vanilla Raspberry, Double Oak Aged, Harvest…Chunky-Style, Extra Cheese, Helium, and Razor Clam….Okay, I made up those last four. And, I just realized, I probably just gave them a few Ideas.
The damned Point, here, is that Yeti – the basic Yeti and especially that bewitching Oak Aged – is a bona fide American classic, one of the true iconic Stouts of New World beers.
THE LOST ABBEY, San Marcos, CA: “Serpent” is, for my money, America’s best-yet example of the straight-forward, Russian Imperial-style, big, dense, complex yet uninfused Imperial Stout. While it may well be the most under-the-radar truly great Stout made in the US, Serpent is easily the equal of any of the more celebrated, collector-bait Imperials that beer geeks geek out over. It’s INTENSE, chewy, deliberately unsweet, drenched in roasted flavors; a festival of charred Everything. It’s creamy and silken but not thick or ponderous and – in a stylistic universe in which pouring cute little 8-10 ounce servings because of elevated alcohol and, frankly, because it’s pretentious to go small – it’s almost compulsively drinkable. At 11% ABV, it can and will knock you on yer ass and that thought should be in mind when drinking it because it’s just damnably easy going down.
Out of this whole list, given my choice on any given evening, I’m choosing Serpent about 75% of the time.
Counterbalance Brewing, Seattle, WA: Washington, compared to many other states, is considerably behind the curve on Big, Attention-Grabbing Stouts. That’s why “Kushetka” landed on the Seattle beer scene like a neutron bomb. I first tasted it at Jules May’s Saloon, in Seattle’s uber-funky Georgetown neighborhood, knowing nothing about it, and wound up with both socks rolled down and my jaw leaking drool. As the name suggests, Kushetka is a Russian Imperial interpretation and nails that whole aesthetic down like a jackhammer. It’s all black flavors like licorice, molasses, chocolate, coffee, and figs, with background fruit and nut flavors that smites your tongue with an almost audible clang, like a struck anvil. This is not to say that there are not some lovely Stouts in Washington but we have no Abysses or Dark Lords or Hunahpus or the like. Well…we didn’t. Now, we have Kushetka and its influence is spawning a mini-renaissance in this tree-huggin’ state’s attitudes about and yen for dark beers.
Walking Man Brewing, Stephenson, WA: By a mile the most obscure bottle in this collection, Walking Man Cherry Stout is arguably the first and most consistently excellent Stout from the gravitational Portland Beer Nexus (PDX is about 30 miles down the river). It’s funny to remember it but, back when Walking Man first brewed Cherry, around 2003, Stouts with Stuff in ’em were très adventurous and a bit eccentric. Into this unplowed earth marched Walking Man Cherry, with its fat, dark-roast character and stunningly realistic cherry flavor; that sweet-sour tart character of eating a just-picked Bing off the tree, as opposed to the flabby, icky cherry simulations we taste in nearly everything that’s “cherry flavored”.
It was greeted back then, in some beer circles, as a sort of interesting but pervy tangent, which is very odd considering that cherry with chocolate – a major flavor element of this ale – is a match made in antiquity and surprises absolutely no one. But that initial wave of curiosity netted an audience that could appreciate it as the insanely well-crafted Stout it is and has kept it in their taps ever since. Sadly, as Stephenson is a long way from Tacoma, I see Cherry on tap…well, never. But any trip to Portland, for me, always includes a swing out the Gorge to stop at pFriem, in Hood River, and an interlude in the back yard at Walking Man, to sip and savor a pint of my favorite cherry beverage of any kind.
North Coast Brewing, Fort Bragg, CA: “Old Rasputin“..I would venture a guess that hearing that name, here in 2020, will conjure almost as many images of a squatty little bottle of unimaginable RIS as it will of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, that notable weirdo who planted himself like kudzu in the Russian court of Emperor Nicholas the Second and generated a legend that persists to this day, even though it is about 75% unproven and, charitably, at least 90% bullshit. This Rasputin is a lot more readily comprehensible and far more approachable. This is just simply an American Classic, a Stout that delivers everything you want in a great Stout and is made in quantities sufficient enough to guarantee that you can probably find it, even when every other Stout around has run out for the season. It is NOT sweet. Habitual swillers of pastry Stouts will find Rasputin appalling. Good. More for those of us who are not clinging to our juice boxes.
I’ve found Rasputin, in bottles, in bowling alleys, gas stations, coffee shops, convenience stores, redneck taverns, the ferniest fern bars in Seattle, NFL games, one produce stand in Ellensburg, Washington, and once in the fridge at my dentist’s office. The fact that it is SO available leads some less savvy beer geeks to conclude that Rasputin is somehow Lesser. Nah. Rasputin is More. More of everything found in great Stout.
What I am about to tell you next is not done lightly. No, I do not have some lofty rep that I struggle to maintain and have actually worked fairly hard NOT to have that, because once you get worried about how you’re perceived, your effectiveness as a writer is over. You have to write it, with a craftsmanlike attitude, and then…NOT GIVE A SHIT. So whatever you think of this next assertion, no worries…
River North Brewing of Denver is, for my money, the best maker of American Imperial Stouts in the country today.
Yes, there is some competition. Cigar City’s immortal Hunahpu’s and near-immortal Marshal Zhukov’s have to be in the discussion, as do the 3 Floyds Dark Lord and Marshmallow Handjee and Moloko, and the Bruery’s “day Stouts”, Grey Monday, Black Tuesday, and Mocha Wednesday, and a bunch of others from breweries which do not specialize in Stouts. But, as a matter of organic evolution of an emerging strength, Matt Hess’ series of Stouts and riffs thereof, for me, have no real equal.
My first was the basic River North Avarice Belgian-Style Imperial Stout, a brooding pint glassful (remember when folks used to pour whole pints of 10%+ darks and let you manage your own consumption? Good times, eh?) that was plopped down in front of me in what was then the fairly new taproom at 2401 Blake Street, in Denver’s resurgent RiNo District (RiNo = River North, for the very slow), on my first-ever visit to D-town, after our son relocated there for his company, a major supplier and installer of hardwood flooring. He found a loft apartment that happened to be right across Blake Street from the new River North Taproom (formerly the old Flying Dog Brewery, before they went on that crazed hegira that landed them in, of all places, Frederick, Maryland.) (I know, right?)
Matt and friends didn’t exactly start on a shoestring but they were not funded by the Gateses of the Buffetts, either, so the early River North had a somewhat post-industrial, half-finished vibe about it, which led me to erroneously believe that the beer would reflect that lack of follow-through. Halfway through the first taster, I silently ate that thought and was relieved I had not let it out my hyper-active piehole. The names were imaginative: J Marie, Hoppenberg Uncertainty Principle, Quandary (a Belgian-style Quad), and then Dubbel and Tripel and that stuff, reflecting Matt’s dogged determination to make BELGIAN beers.
And Avarice Imperial Stout.
Everything was a shock, but Avarice…well, that became an outright obsession for me. I mailed our son some money and asked him to pick up six bottles and save ’em until we came back down to Denver. That wound up being six months later and he, a non-Stout drinker, had gotten Curious, so that I arrived and found ONE bottle of Avarice left, found it out of season at the brewery, and found a brand newbie Stout fan living in my son’s clothes.
Avarice has that effect. It’s a big, muscular-but-lithe Belgian-style Stout, with those lovely, eccentric yeast-driven spice and fruit and bubble gum notes evolving on the finish of a HUGE pile of Stout Virtues: coffee, cinnamon, molasses, bittersweet chocolate, figs, leather, cigar leaf, and wet wood. I followed my 3 oz. taster pour with a full pint(!) of it, on that first tasting and managed to stumble back across Blake Street without getting run over. Hence the request for the six bottles, hence the mandatory visit on every subsequent trip to Mile High, hence my hiding the Stouts when Christopher comes here to visit. And, of course, given his overactive mechanical engineer’s mind and the success of that first Stout, Matt Hess began to experiment. Today, that library includes a Chili-Chocolate, Double, Whiskey-Barreled, “B-Side” Avarice, and a couple more that didn’t escape the brewery.
It also led to other Big Ideas that were, of course, rather inevitable for a brewery that has a consumer base that loves Stouts at all. The success of Great Divide’s iconic “Yeti” and its thousand offspring planted the seeds of Stout Love that blossomed in Denver’s fertile beer soils into a dozen of more breweries that make either borderline or flat-out brilliant Stouts. Which, of course, meant that Matt had to step up the Stout Game just to stay current. The result of that boomlet has been the stunning Mr. Sandman and variants (Irish Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Bourbon, “Barrel-aged Long Island” which turns out to be Whiskey, tequila, rum and gin barrel-aged imperial stout brewed with orange.), and Mayan Chocolate. Then came Nightmare Fuel, an impossibly rich coffee Stout that is rivaled in intensity of java flavor only by a cuppa straight black Joe. OF COURSE they did a Whiskey-Barrel version, are you kidding? Bourbon in coffee? Match made in Heaven. Duh.
There is also what MAY actually top the whole bunch, Shadowman, which their website describes as “Motor Oil Thick Imperial Stout. Dark chocolate, stone fruit, vanilla. Chewy, thick and dark. 15% ABV” Translation: MONSTER, as in “don’t drink and drive, not even a golf cart” or “don’t drink and walk, either”. I have now tasted Shadowman, which completes my set of RiNo Stout playing cards, which are all neatly wrapped in a mental rubber band and stowed in that beer-seeking corner of my subconscious which drives the car every time I’m in Denver. Its funny…sorta. I start driving out driving out East Colfax, in search of chicken and waffles at Corafaye’s Soul Food Cafe and somehow wind up at River North, pouring a Stout in my face. Weird, that.
I don’t even know, based on my ONE, ever, conversation with Matt, whether he even meant to become Stout Behemoth for the Western US or not but once our Special Purpose reveals itself, a wise man follows. And Matt is nothing if not wise and persistent. River North has survived having their original brewery space sold out from under them (to build more fucking condos), a move several miles away, another move after that, and finally a rebuild and new space on Blake Street, exactly ten blocks north of their first home, while keeping their previous space at 6021 North Washington Street. The aesthetics of Denver’s booming beer culture have finally caught up with Matt’s original vision and focused badgering by me and other like-minded beer geeks finally drove out-of-towners to find it, too, usually during GABF, so that today’s River North is a bona fide Force that brings in the Curious and the Faithful in ample measures.
Tragically, our son’s company moved him to Dallas – not exactly the beer capital of the US – and I have fewer chances to get back to Denver…and, even more tragically, Matt is STILL not distributed here in the Seattle-Tacoma area and I believe not in Portland, either. Literally – not figuratively – every time I taste a new Stout, from ANYBODY, I think of River North. I YEARN for those beers and I have to believe that, if you got a chance to try them and love Stouts the way I do, you would probably feel much the same. As I tell all those people who, for almost thirteen annoying years, have asked me if I work for Deschutes, just because I review and love so many of their beers, I say those things ONLY because of What I Taste. Same here.
River North – across the board, NOT just for Stouts! – is one of the best breweries in America that you never heard of and that is nailed emphatically by the sheer, jaw-dropping quality, texture, intensity(!), and deliciousness of these four insane Stouts. If you’re in Denver and do NOT at least stop and try these ales…you’re missing an essential element in your understanding of American Dark Beers.