Monday, February 18, 2013

A Dark and Strong Duo: Great Lakes Blackout Stout and Otter Creek Russian Imperial Stout

As I write this, the wind chill here in Albany is currently -3 degrees.  In other words, it's still the season for stouts--maybe imperial stouts, to be specific, with their warming, high-ABV booziness.

By this time next month maybe I'll be making my transition toward lighter beers, enjoying a few Irish red ales around St. Paddy's Day before that natural downswing toward IPAs and eventually witbiers and the like.  But I still have a few stouts left to help myself through this long final stretch of winter, and I'd be remiss to not make a couple recommendations from this batch.

When it comes to Russian Imperial Stouts, I use Bell's Expedition Stout as a measuring stick.  I finally had this beer on tap a year ago and was blown away by its complexities.  So, how do Great Lakes' Blackout Stout and Otter Creek's Russian Imperial Stout stand up to the Bell's?  Pretty well, I must say.

Great Lakes Blackout Stout

I'm thrilled to finally get the chance to write about a beer from my beloved Great Lakes Brewing, the Cleveland-based brewery I started to fall in love with while in Pittsburgh (blasphemy, I know) and then while living in Ohio for three years.  For now, Great Lakes only distributes as far east as western New York, but there's been talk of the brewery widening their reach to the Capital Region in the near future.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon their Blackout Stout at Hoosick Street Beverage in Troy in early January (it's gone now, but some Dortmunder Gold and Burning River remained when I visited late last week), but that's only because the guys from Hoosick Street drove east to pick up a few cases of a variety of Great Lakes' beers.

I've had the Blackout Stout several times before, both on tap and from the bottle, so it was fun to go back now--with my stout-drinking experiences broadened since I last had it--and drink it again.  It just so happens that I had a bottle in the refrigerator when the lights went out at the Superdome during this month's Super Bowl, so what better time to break out the Blackout Stout, named after the 2003 blackout that swept over the northeastern United States?

Yes, the Blackout Stout is strong at 10% ABV, but there's so much more going on with this beer than just booziness.  There's a strong malty flavor, a lot of bold roast in there.  Coffee, chocolate, toffee--these are other flavors I feel like I notice in this stout.  It's dark and thick, possessing a mouthfeel that seems to perfectly match the flavors of the beer.  And the beer is well-balanced, particularly important with one that has such a high alcohol content; you don't want to lose all those good flavors under the alcohol, and that's avoided with the Blackout Stout.

This is a really good beer, and I'm really pleased to have proved to myself that my fondness for Great Lakes isn't just based in nostalgic reverie.

Otter Creek Russian Imperial Stout

A seasonal release from the Vermont-based brewery that's also behind Wolaver's (which puts out a pretty nice coffee porter), the Russian Imperial Stout is pretty standard for the style and not much different from the Blackout Stout.  It's a really lovely beer on the pour, as you can see above, with a head that veers beyond tan and almost to copper-colored, and it may even be more viscous on the tongue than the Blackout Stout.  Also at 10% ABV, the mouthfeel certainly matches the heaviness and warming qualities of the beer.

While I certainly recommend the Russian Imperial Stout--ahead of the Blackout Stout, considering this one's actually available right now in the Capital Region--it falls a little behind my favorites in the style simply because I think it's a little less complex in its flavors.  I think what separates Bell's Expedition Stout from the pack for me is the way the hops work to add some unexpected depth (plus I liked how it really smelled like soy sauce).  And my god was it creamy, though maybe some of that can be attributed to it being served on tap at a place that does beer the right way (if for any reason you happen to be passing through Hickory, NC, you'll definitely want to stop at the Crescent Moon Cafe). 

But that doesn't diminish the fact that Otter Creek's Russian Imperial Stout is a very solid, satisfying representation of this style of beer.  It's got that maltiness, that roastiness, and a little smoky backbone.  Occasionally there's a bit of a burnt flavor that comes through with a slightly unpleasant bitterness, but that's not a defining element of this beer.

If you like a good stout, this is definitely the time of year to pick some up--especially strong and bold ones like these from Great Lakes and Otter Creek.  I'd recommend both, but I also think this is a style that's great for sampling as parts of mixed-sixers--there are a lot of little nuances that different brewers put into their own versions that are fun and satisfying to catch and compare.

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