A limited-edition collection of increasingly strong and adventurous Imperial Stouts with a horror movie theme – what’s not to like?
There’s an argument – not one that I subscribe to, but which I can understand – that craft beer is all mouth and trousers, selling more on smart ass names and cool-as-fuck imagery more than flavour. There is something to this – we’ve all been suckered into buying something that has fantastic label art that turns out to be all too generic in taste. But much of this complaint seems to come from a certain sector of real ale traditionalists that have a general suspicion of the craft movement, and not only believe that a beer should be murky, brown and unadventurous, but also that the packaging should be as insipid and interchangeable as the drink itself. Oh, sure – there are some impressive, outrageous and inspired pump clips out there, just as there are plenty of real ales that do push the boat out – but a large part of the traditional beer scene is much more impressed by conformity than experiment.
We shouldn’t be knocking craft brewers for turning the packaging of their beers into an art form. I’d say that a commitment to making beer look cool might well be a sign that the brewer is committed to making it taste cool as well, and creating something that stands out – something that gives your beer an identity – is a smart move, as well as a natural instinct for young hipsters who are as much about aesthetics as taste. Of course, in a world where there are more and more brewers offering more and more variations, distinct and immediately recognisable imagery on the cans becomes ever more important.
Of course, if the beer inside the fancy can tastes foul, then no artwork can change that. We probably do have too many breweries doing too many interchangeable beers these days – just how many IPA variations you can come up with before everything starts to taste the same is a question that might have been answered a couple of years ago. But with the overload of choice, so it becomes ever more important that we find – and can quickly recognise – those brewers who we know will deliver the goods.
All this brings us to Brew York and their fifth birthday Freaky Franchise, which mixes a series of imperial stouts with imagery inspired by 1980s horror movie franchises. Perhaps in contrast to said movie franchises, each of these beers – collaborative efforts with other breweries – gets progressively stronger by 1%, which is quite something when the series starts with A New Beginning that weighs in at 11%. This is a breakfast stout – which automatically gets our seal of approval – made in collaboration with Norwegian brewer Amundsen Bryggeri. There’s something about the breakfast stout that is hard to resist, with its thick and potent taste, and this one – with coffee, cacao, blueberry, walnut and vanilla – hits the mark perfectly. It’s definitely up there with Vocation’s Blueberry Waffle breakfast stout, very much the drink by which all others were measured for us when it was available. You might not actually want to have an 11% stout for breakfast – we’re not judging anyone, but it’s a dramatic start to anyone’s day – but this is a fantastic, substantial beer that requires respectful sipping and savouring. A good start.
Things start to get a lot more intense from this point out. There’s a notable contradiction about a lot of high-strength beer – say, Belgian beers like Duval or Delirium Tremens – in that the stringer it is, the easier it seems to drink. You can knock that stuff back with ease, barely noticing the high percentage until it’s too late. That’s not really true with stout. The stronger it gets, the more work and respect it requires. It might just be me, but there is no way I’m going to knock back a 12% stout even if I wanted to. I’m not even going to drink it as quickly as I might a couple of regular pints. At times, they can even become hard (though rewarding) work, the sheer intensity and thickness of the drink making it a struggle. What I’m basically saying here is that none of these beers is designed for casual drinking.
The Revenge is a 12% maple and pecan Imperial Milk Stout, and you can definitely feel more potency here. Brewed in collaboration with Spain’s Napabier, this is sweet and rich, with a treacle stickiness that is probably going to defeat more than a few drinkers. Like all these beers, I would argue that this is not for drinking with a meal – it’s just too intense, and you really don’t want to mix the flavours. Best save it as a dessert, but be prepared to take your time.
The third beer in the collection is perhaps where the breaking point might come for many. The 13% Ghost Dimension is a Mexican Mole Imperial Stout, and if that isn’t a clue, perhaps the fact that it has a chilli rating (three out of five) on the bottle might be. I’ve had a few chilli beers in my time, and by and large, this combination of two of my favourite things has worked well – the chilli has been mild, sometimes even non-existent. The one exception was the lager that came complete with a chilli pepper floating in the bottle and was designed as much as a dare as anything – a dare I readily accepted on the rare occasions I found a bottle (for reasons perhaps best unexamined, it only ever seemed to be available in Glasgow).
Ghost Dimension also has a Scottish connection, being a collaboration with the aptly-named Fierce Beer in Aberdeen, and certainly can’t be considered a gimmick. I offered this to Mrs Reprobate to sniff; instead, she took a taste, her face immediately grimacing in horror. And this is a woman with a taste for sour beers. On first sip, this certainly doesn’t seem promising – the cumin, chipotle and assorted chillies hit you immediately, with a sharp tingle that I can certainly see putting some people off. But a couple more sips and you start to get the smooth sweetness behind the heat. There’s a richness here, but it’s less thick than the previous beer, and it’s decidedly more-ish. This one, I do see matching food – hot food, of course – or with a cool dessert as a side. Both a winter warmer and a summer spice sensation, this is one that I would definitely buy on a regular basis.
After the burning heat of Ghost Dimension, something rather cooler is required, and The Dream Child is decidedly easier drinking – a possible concern, as we are up to 14% by this point, and by any standards, that’s pretty damn strong. This is made in collaboration with Tiny Rebel, who has a history in making beer that has a sweet taste – Rhubarb and Custard, Jam Doughnut, Peaches and Cream. True to form, this is a Rocky Roads Ice Cream Pastry Stout and is deceptively easy drinking. The dessert sweetness is sensibly offset by the sheer strength of the alcohol, which gives it a little bitterness on the side. However, you could drink this with more ease than more or less any of the other drinks so far – impressive for something that is reaching the point where, if other ultra-high-strength beers that I’ve had are anything to go by, things can become something of a challenge. More importantly, this doesn’t feel like a novelty beer, despite the rather extravagant flavouring – it still feels very much like a stout, albeit one of the sweeter varieties. It’s rather impressive.
And so we come, fittingly, to The Final Chapter, which clocks in at a sobering 15% but otherwise seems to be something of a return to the sort of thing that we might expect from an imperial stout. Not that we’re talking bland or bring of course, but the collision of honeycomb, coconut, cacao, tonka and vanilla is oddly familiar as a list of ingredients compared to the last couple of entries – though of course, once you dig into ‘Rocky Roads Ice Cream’, it doesn’t actually seem that far removed. Proof, if proof was needed, that it is often less the ingredients and more how you combine them that makes all the difference.
The Final Chapter is brewed in collaboration with one-man-band Emperor’s Brewery from Coalville in Leicestershire – an example to anyone looking to set up in the brewing business but lacking the cash to hire an industrial unit and all the doings, perhaps. This is more what I might have expected from a high-strength beer in terms of being sweet and deceptively easy to drink, with the chocolatey and vanilla flavours to the fore and just the right edge of bitterness to remind you of what you are drinking. After the more extreme examples of earlier entries, this feels everything going full circle – a first-rate imperial stout that doesn’t stray from the path of what we might expect, APV aside. It feels like an appropriate beer to end the journey on, somehow.
If the craft beer movement has done nothing else, it should be applauded for taking the comparatively niche style of the imperial stout – once upon a time a rare sight in most pubs – and making it part of the beer mainstream. These five beers show just how much flexibility there is within the style, and how far things can be pushed without becoming needlessly gimmicky – for all their assorted exoticness, none of these drinks seems to push novelty over flavour. The ongoing theme in the packaging is a fun nod to 1980s horror franchises and a nice way of connecting the beers, without becoming style over substance. As limited editions, they will probably not hang around long enough to find what might be their natural home – sold in the bars at the assorted horror film festivals that run in the UK between the end of August and the start of November – a shame, as most events would allow one or two a day to be sampled, thus avoiding any questions of encouraging unsensible drinking.
You can find the beers here: https://brewyork.co.uk/shop.
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