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I loathe a chocolate beer, or any other such testicle-neutralizing fru-fru nonsense, but a beer that has a flavor like that of chocolate can attract my attention. Imperial Stout is like chocolate, coffee and whole grain bread mashed into liquid, run through fire, and then smoothed in vast casks of ancient stone. It has a smooth flavor and feel, high alcohol punch, and dense labyrinth of flavors.
Now, keep in mind that reviewing Sam Smith beers and giving them the thumbs up is like shooting fish in a barrel. The shocking review would be one that found one of their products inferior, mainly because they do a good middle-of-the-road job turned up to A+ levels. It is hard to find a better brewery, at least that does not involve hiking for a day to meet some rather spaced-out monks. But, the question with Sam Smith is how to enjoy their beers and why, because not every beer fits every occasion.
With that in mind, Imperial Stout is not an everyday beer. It is more a ceremonial beer, probably more appropriate for the center of the day than its end. It is unrelentingly rich from start to finish. This is best drunk in an iron flagon with a thick cigar in hand, preferably while holding a weapon and/or torturing dissidents. It is a strong, violently excellent beer that may not fit except during special occasions in your life.
Whenever I try a new beer, I compare it to a similar offering from Samuel Smith Old Brewery. These venerable beers have decked the shelves of quality liquor stores for at least two generations in the states, and continue to sell because of their fundamental quality as interpreted by people who enjoy having a pint that is a flavor experience in itself.
The Celebrated Oatmeal Stout has a slightly bitter, thoroughly grainy, and rich dark taste that rewards the drinker with an even consistency from top to bottom of the glass. Unlike the hipster beers which ramp up a single flavor component, the slight bitterness expands into a creamy caramel which balances the yeasty tastes. The reason for its bitterness is revealed as it becomes clear that without that to balance the sweetness, this beer would seem like syrup, where with it, The Celebrated Oatmeal Stout takes on the flavor dimensions of a good coffee: an initial bite, then a caramelized nuttiness, followed by a smooth and warm taste, all of which are ensconced in a basic richness that makes this the beer you want if you can have only one.
It is not exactly the news to write a review praising Samuel Smith Old Brewery in 2015, but it is a good reminder: for half of what you spend on hipster IPAs, you can get a classic that has nurtured casual drinkers for generations. It is too intense in both flavor and body to drink like an alcoholic, but serves as the perfect complement to a winter afternoon. Unlike most beers, it feels clean and whole in the mouth and does not break down into its constituent components. Like the best of beers, it combines flavor with composition and delivers a 5% ABV without it overshadowing the other aspects of the beer. Keep your trendy beers; this is all I’ll need.
Quality rating: 5/5
Purchase rating: 5/5
Options in life often take the form of what is conveniently available plus feasible given resources. Imagine a standard American suburban Saturday night, when you are the squad are about to chill in the garage with some death metal and smokes. What can you pick up at a standard die-cut suburban liquor store or grocery store that does not hit either extreme, mediocrity or expensive novelty? One option for generations has been Newcastle Brown Ale, now brought to you by the same people who murdered Heineken and turned it into Budweiser with Dutch flavoring. Luckily, with Newcastle, there is less room to ruin: this has always been a medium-dark, sweet beer with a caramel-molasses flavor, and although this version is more watery than the ones from two decades ago, it mostly maintains that flavor. Pouring the beer releases a fallen leaves brown liquid with a medium head and an immediate note of its dominant flavor, a nutty warmth melded with malty stoved sugar with undertones of fresh bread and a hint of malt vinegar. It goes down smoothly with a creamy flavor and a lingering sweetness which might be the weakest point for this beer, followed by an earthy but not bitter flavor of hops. Like many commercial beers, its aftertaste is most revealing, which has the sugars dissipate to a slightly skunky yeast flavor. What saves it is that warmth and toned down brown ale flavor seamlessly mixed with a gentle sweetness. Sometimes this one is too sweet for me. But Newcastle Brown Ale provides a solid middle-of-the-road brown ale that can be found almost anywhere at a low import price, making this a go-to when the pale imitations of formerly great imports (and their 20% higher prices) make the lips curl with resentment and not anticipation.
Quality rating: 4/5
Purchase rating: 4/5