By Brian Skaggs
Price Range : $10 - 12
Region: Comstock, Michigan ABV: 11.2% Availability: winter release, distribution to 39 states
Our fruit-focused, spice-sensing, and floral-finding wine drinking brothers and sisters certainly miss out on the diversity of malt beverage flavor profiles when they’re swirling and sniffing their simple drink created from fermented grape juice. One thing said wine brothers and sisters know much better than we superior beer guzzlers, however, is the invaluable contribution of wood storage vessels for whatever alcoholic beverage resides therein.
Many winery visits involve some kind of long-winded treatise on the provenance of their €600 French oak barrels, sourced from the twenty-ninth secteur of the Arenberg Forest, coopered by only the wisest grizzled coopers, and lovingly toasted to the medium-plus level, including the heads, for prime crème brûlée sugar and tannic extraction in some red varietal fermented grape juice that costs USD$77, blah blah. Yet, for all the implied disdain, even a little understanding of what wood imparts to your alcoholic beverage only leads the formerly naïve to start questioning.
For instance, did you know:
- French and American oak are different species?
- More toasting leads to less tannins?
- Some wineries are aging wine in bourbon barrels now, like, for real?
- Bourbon barrels are always made from American oak?
- Bourbon barrels are always charred¹ in addition to toasted?
- Bourbon barrels can only hold one batch of bourbon?
The last two are arguably the most relevant to bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts. Brewers and beer nerds love to blather on about percentages of flaked oats, the ultra-rare yeast strain isolated from coffee beans pooped out of a monkey’s butt, or the mango-rambutan-lonely heart tropical flavors in Experimental Hop 90125. When it comes to barrel-aged imperial stouts, though, things like char levels, how long a barrel held bourbon before being sold to the brewery, how long the beer hung out in the barrel before release, and even which distillery the barrel came from, are almost never mentioned². It seems intuitive that a base imperial stout, transferred into one highly charred barrel that held bourbon for fifteen years and still contained a bit of residual booze, would taste radically different than the same beer going into a lightly charred, dried, disassembled barrel that contained bourbon for only two years.
The copy for BELL’S Black Note Stout only mentions that the beer was aged “in freshly retired oak bourbon barrels for months.” My most-likely completely fictional expansion of that phrase, after thoroughly enjoying Black Note for about seventy minutes, would read as follows: “Our 2017 Black Note went into char level 3 barrels from an Indiana distiller that held corn and rye bourbon for between twelve and twenty years. These barrels were delivered to Bell’s wet—but without any residual bourbon that we the brewers could enjoy—before adding a blend of our Expedition and Double Cream stouts³.”
The first aroma that comes to mind after sniffing through the gorgeous amber/chocolate head isn’t American whiskey, but Spanish oloroso sherry—caramel-y, nutty, and slightly sweet, like the aforementioned crusty sugar on top of a dulce de leche crème brûlée. Black Note also has a kind of sweet-umami-meaty smell, too, like a tri-tip that sat for days in a molasses-ancho chile marinade just hitting the super-hot wood-fired grill. Unlike a sentence that contains six hyphens, though, Black Note welcomes you in with a restrained, enticing smile and a simple wave of a hand.
There’s a confident, austere mellowness in the way Black Note tastes, too. It’s brighter and bubblier than most of the previously reviewed brooding and bodacious barrel-aged imperial stouts (Lagunitas; Modern Times; Central Waters). Complex sweetness, like a savory plum cobbler made with dark brown sugar, molasses, and whatever weird ancient grains you’re using these days instead of poor, maligned white flour, ends up being contrasted with an appealing sourness that could be from bacteria left in the barrels or a complete figment of my imagination. Mildly-toasted oak does eventually peek through, although it’s more a gentle, caressing tannic bitterness versus getting a sharp rap on the head with a charred oak hammer. The plum cobbler fades into more of a lingering dark malt/oloroso sherry aftertaste, with oak and bourbon barely present.
All of this wonderful integration of wood, spice, sugar, and savory suggest that Black Note Stout could be one of those beers our inferior beer-averse wine nerd friends might enjoy. Conversely, wouldn’t it be even cooler if beer nerds that currently know little to nothing about oak barrels started discussing the finer points of charred wood and lignins and the difference between barrels from craft distillery A and megadistillery B…hey breweries! Yeah, you with the used bourbon barrels! Today’s semi-informed consumers love to know where our grapes and hops and tri-tip hail from. How about giving us some barrel information too? —B.S.
¹ Charring barrels is generally categorized on a range from 1 (light) to 4 (heavy, blistered, ‘alligator skin’ char), and most bourbons are aged in barrels charred in the 3-4 range. Because rules are invariably meant to be broken when it comes to ethyl alcohol and life in general, there are bourbons aged in barrels charred up to a level 7.
² Lagunitas High Westified and Willettized are notable exceptions. Another (Black Note)able exception is the (initially) Jim Beam barrel-aged imperial stout named after a county in Kentucky or Kansas made in Chicago by our old friends ‘Moose Slyhand,’ mentioned previously and other previously and is the main subject of the next review.
³ Josh Noel’s excellent, contemplative new book Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out describes how brewers in the mid-90s at ‘Moose Slyhand’ would receive their Jim Beam barrels with bourbon still sloshing around in them. As in footnote number two, other stuff in Noel’s great book will be discussed in the next review.