Dark beers like stout highlight flavors reminiscent of coffee and chocolate, resulting in a great canvas for brewers to blend nontraditional ingredients in their beers. From fruits and vegetables to coffee, vanilla, chocolate, spices and even peanut butter, the variety of unusual stouts produced by California breweries is growing and changing all the time.
Following are some recommendations for the autumn season.
• Dia De Los Serranos double stout with Serrano pepper from San Diego’s Green Flash is pitch black with a creamy, dense mocha head, and the aroma showcases a pleasant Southwestern essence of dark chocolate and fire-roasted chili peppers. The flavor begins as a rich, chocolaty stout with a gentle hint of sweetness and some pleasant coffee-ground character, but very quickly the bright flavor and earthy heat of the Serrano peppers take over. The longer the beer sits on the tongue, the stronger the prickly heat gets, and the finish highlights a long-lasting, pronounced chili heat. Rich, creamy and flavorful, with significant carbonation for such a strong beer (8.8 percent ABV, which is well hidden), this is a uniquely tasty brew.
• I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to include a pumpkin beer. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward has brewed a pumpkin ale for many years, and it also produces a seasonal blueberry oatmeal stout, but last year they decided to put those two concepts together in their Black Pumpkin Oatmeal Stout. The beer is a deep reddish-brown in the glass, with a tall, creamy ecru head. The aroma is strongly reminiscent of fresh gingerbread cookies, emphasis on the ginger, with additional notes of molasses, cloves and citron. The flavor is identical – gingerbread cookies all the way, from the first sip through the finish.
• Over the past couple of years, a number of breweries have produced peanut butter stouts and porters, and as a peanut butter lover, I’ve tried as many of them as I could. Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout from San Diego remains the best of the bunch.
The beer pours a rich black color with a dense, creamy head of tan foam. The aroma is peanut butter cup all the way – peanut butter, milk chocolate, vanilla and rich sweetness, with a touch of malted milk balls. On the palate, the dark chocolate and coffee notes of the underlying stout are more prominent, but the peanut butter flavor is still present. The addition of lactose provides a distinct but not cloying sweetness, while rolled oats contribute a creamy, silky mouthfeel.
• San Diego’s Modern Times Beer has the distinction of being both a coffee roaster and a brewery, so it tends to know its way around coffee beers. City of the Dead demonstrates a new twist on bourbon barrel aging. Instead of aging the finished beer in bourbon barrels, it aged raw single origin Guatemala Jacaltenango coffee beans in bourbon barrels, then roasted the beans and added them to an export stout at a rate of 2.5 pounds per barrel. The resulting brew pours a deep black color with a long-lasting, dense, dark khaki head, and the aroma highlights dark, unsweetened chocolate notes along with vanilla and a touch of dark, sweet cherry character. Bourbon is not immediately apparent other than the vanilla notes, but a subtle bourbon-ness emerges as the beer warms.
While the coffee is surprisingly subdued in the aroma, it is unmistakable on the palate, with a rich roastiness, more dark chocolate and flavors of dark currants. The finish is smooth, rich and creamy, and showcases a distinctive fruitiness without being sweet.
Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.