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The Ichorous Trinity Compared

Photo courtesy of Oak and Vine

I love side-by-side tastings. They really isolate the effects of a manipulation to a beer. Some are more challenging to operationalize than others.

Blindman Brewing recently released not one, but two barrel-aged versions of its imperial stout, Ichorous. Not long before they also released a new version of the original beer. Seems a perfect opportunity for a side-by-side. Except that all three versions are 11% alcohol or more, meaning drinking all three in one night would leave one loopy. Sure, I could have a friend over, but I find that detracts from focussed sampling and note-taking. I could also just drink some of each and dump the rest, but – really, why?!?

So, my decision this time was to make it an ALMOST side-by-side. I sampled one each night for three nights, taking care to take precise notes to prevent memory distortion.

The three beer were the regular Ichorous Imperial Stout and then one version aged in red wine oak and one in bourbon oak. The regular version will be a newer batch, I am told, so the comparison is not exact (accounting for small variations between batches). Still, it is a pretty good exploration of how barrel-aging affects beer and, in particular, how different kinds of barrels change the beer.

The original version pours inky black, deep and dark. It builds a medium tan head pockmarked with white spots and with tight bubbles. Eventually forms a consistent blanket. It has a low carbonation. The aroma has molasses, dark chocolate, light roast coffee, dark fruit, roasted almonds and a hint of milky sweetness.

The sip brings out chocolate, some nuttiness and a gentle malt sweetness at first. I have to say it starts rather modest and not too cloying. The middle dries out a bit by bringing in some coffee and darker chocolate notes as well as a clean undertone. The back end has touches of earthy hops, dry roast and milky sweetness. There is almost a mocha latte feel to the finish. The linger has a mix of sharp hops, light coffee roast and chocolate. Light fruity esters linger in background. It has a silky, creamy mouthfeel.

Overall it is a very appetizing beer. Clean, balanced and the flavours blend well for such a young age. Tons of potential for a couple years from now.

I next tried the red wine barrel. It, too, pours opaque black, but looks thinner somehow. No head forms at all, giving it something of a cola appearance. The aroma has subdued roast and chocolate character along with noted dark fruit. No wine character in the aroma. It is a fairly flat aroma.

The flavour offers some mild chocolate and coffee notes at first, overtaken by a strong wood character, vanilla, wood, hints of smoke. Middle brings out a bit of earthy red wine. If find the beer has thinned out a fair bit and has lost the creaminess of the original. A rustic finish of wood and alcohol. Linger brings some roast back out as well as an alcohol warming.

The beer seems rather flat and loses much of the fulsomeness of the original without adding much new character. Some wood is present but otherwise it is less interesting.

Finally I tried the Kentucky Bourbon, which indicates it also has some toasted coconut.

Like the others it pours opaque black, but seems deeper than wine version, while less deep than original. It forms a dark tan head that drops relatively quickly, but leaves a thin wisp. The aroma is dominated by  chocolate liqueur notes – chocolate and bourbon, like those liqueur filled chocolates at Xmas. I also pick up some light coffee in background and dark fruits.

The flavour starts with  dark fruit, milk chocolate and a hint of vanilla. The middle brings out both a woody character and some bourbon sweetness, which intermingles with a butterscotch note and more chocolate. The finish offers an earthy bourbon whiskey feel mixing with a hint of roast. The linger is alcohol, whiskey and chocolate milk.

This version holds more of the beer’s original character and as a result blends well with the bourbon barrel effects. It does lose some of its silkiness and richness, but replaces it with a pleasant wood character to create an interesting beer.

The main observation is how much the barrels transformed the beer. They were three VERY different beer. The wood thins out the beer and strips away some of the richness found in the original. However, it is supposed to impart some oak character and other features to balance out the effect, which was more successful in the bourbon barrel than the wine barrel.

Clearly what was in the barrel also matters a lot. Frankly, I was disappointed in the red wine barrel. I couldn’t really tell that it had wine in it before as it didn’t really impart anything I expect from red wine. Maybe a less intense beer style might bring out some of the fruity notes of the wine, but they get lost in this beer. In contrast, you can see why brewers like using bourbon barrels, it adds a noticeable flavour that creates a new dimension to the beer. I didn’t really get any coconut in the beer – again possibly a victim of the beer’s overall intensity.

This experiment suggests to me that a) wood-aged is a useful thing to do with certain styles (but we all already knew that), and b) be careful which kind of barrel you put your beer in. The red wine didn’t work with this beer (maybe with a barley wine it might work?), at least for me. The bourbon was a nice fit, however. And, of course, that original beer is solid, which I guess is c) be sure to use a solid base beer when barrel aging.

Ichorous is impressive. So is Blindman’s experiment with aging it in different types of barrels. Can’t fault someone for experimenting, can you?

 

2 comments to The Ichorous Trinity Compared

  • From the Brewer:
    Just some insight into some of the comments you had on the differences between the beers.

    Red Wine Barrel Version: The two barrels we used for this beer came from Church and State, who had completely cleaned the barrels and stripped them of any and all wine related characters and then filled them with citric acid solution. We probably should have named it “french oak imp stout” as there was no wine character expected in the final product. This was also the first batch of Imp Stout we ever brewed, it came up a bit high in terminal gravity (we had aimed for an 11.6% abv beer but only hit 11%), and to me the base beer (the 2015 IIS) also tasted too much like a baltic porter. Given that we mis-communicated the flavour profile of the beer via the label it’s understandable that some were disappointed by the lack of wine character (I would have like to see it in there as well), however, I think we still managed to extract and showcase some lovely oak character which complimented the characters of the base beer. We’ve had a lot of positive comments on this beer.

    Bourbon/Coconut Version: As noted above I had some concerns with the 2015 base beer and in this, the 2016 version, I removed some crystal malt and replaced it with more roasted barley. I still found the beer to be a touch too much like a baltic porter. The beer went drier but we began at a lower starting gravity to keep the 11% abv we had in the previous year. We were supposed to get a “hop rocket” or ‘torpedo’ type set up to flow the beer through the toasted coconut I had made, but it didn’t materialize and the coconut was just left to soak in the beer in a hop sock. Even after 4 days the coconut character pick up was minimal and we were running out of time. I agree that the beer needs more of the coconut character and we’ll certainly adjust our process for future batches. To my palate the coconut is present in the nose, but only early in the tasting, once the beer is in your mouth the rest of the strong flavours and aromas overwhelm the coconut. The bourbon barrels we used were of American origin, arrived bone dry and smelled heavenly. We knew we had a good beer on our hands before it even went into the barrels. I am very happy with the result.

    2017 IIS Version: As noted above the recipe changed again, as I removed even more crystal malt and replaced it with roasted barley. I reverted to aiming for a higher starting and finishing gravity as tasted in the 2015 version while again maintaining the 11%abv, but increased the bitterness a touch to balance out the increase in perceived body. I find that this batch of IIS is certainly the best imp. stout I’ve ever made, but certainly not the end game. I again find that this beer still tastes too much like a baltic porter for my palate, and come 2018 I’ll again change the recipe to push this product towards what I believe is the appropriate flavour profile, ie. more roast less caramel.

    Notes on IIS generally:

    Carbonation: We intentionally aimed low on carbonation, which you can see in the articles tasting note descriptions of generally poor head retention, however, my assumption was that an 11%abv beer wouldn’t hold much of a head anyway. The point was to limit the perception of bitterness and maintain a traditional UK stout feel to the beer, which I believed was a lower carb than you normally see in North American made beers. We’ve just packaged another version of IIS to be released later this year and I’ve decided to take the criticisms (?) to heart and up the carbonation a touch.

    Age: Our base beer for IIS is designed such that it doesn’t need to be aged out, I hope that people drink it fresh and judge it’s deliciousness in the fresh state. The Barrelled versions are also meant to be served fresh as they are already 1-2 years old. The barrel adds back to the beer that which age has removed (bitterness/gravity balance). If, as a consumer, you appreciate the flavours and aromas of aged stout, by all means cellar the beer and enjoy it, but for me I like my stouts fresh and this one is bittered so that you can, if you like, enjoy it the moment it comes out of the brewery.

    Thanks for reviewing my beers, I appreciate the feedback and the exposure.

    Cheers,

    Adam Campbell
    Head Brewer, Blindman Brewing Inc

    • beerguy

      Adam, thanks for the detailed and transparent response. That does help a lot. I did, honestly, expect red wine character and so my review reflects that. Had I known it had been scrubbed clean, I would have evaluated it differently. Lessons learned on all sides.

      The insights into the design of the beer is fascinating. My next can of it will have a new appreciation for what you do.

      Cheers!

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