The 12 Days of (Barrel Aged) Christmas: All Big, All Black, All Quebec!
So last Christmas season I had this idea (which I’ve been working on for the last year or so). I wanted to get my hands on every Bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout brewed in Quebec, and then do a little compare & contrast in the traditional Beerism way. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I needed to expand the criteria in order to properly represent Quebec’s amazing barrel aged dark beer scene. So instead, this article will be examining Imperial Stouts or Porters that have been aged in barrels that previously contained Bourbon, Brandy, Whiskey, or Rye. By expanding the criteria a bit, I was able to include more examples, and ultimately find more to review. And honestly, aren’t they all the same anyway? I kid, I kid. I can just imagine getting face stomped by a bunch of beer geeks for that joke.
I managed to my hands on 12 different bottles that fit within the above guidelines, and in no particular order:
- Pit Caribou: No.13 Tennessee Imperial Porter (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- St-Ambroise: Stout Impériale Russe: RIS (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Dieu du Ciel!: Péché Mortel (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Le Castor: Catherine Grande Réserve (Rye barrel Aged)
- Brasserie Dunham: Stout Impériale Russe (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Brasserie Dunham: Stout Impériale Russe – Coffee & Vanilla (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Trefle Noir: Chernoe Pivo (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Le Bilboquet: Corriveau Impériale (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Les Trois Mousquetaires: Grande Cuvée Porter Baltique – (Bourbon & Brandy Barrel Aged)
- Le Trou Du Diable: L’Impératrice (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
- Brasserie Dunham: Lapatt Robust Porter (Canadian Whiskey Barrel Aged)
- Brasserie Dunham: Stout Impériale Russe à L’Érable (Canadian Whiskey Barrel Aged)
From my (lazy) research these 12 seem to be the bulk of all “Bourbon-ish” barrel aged strong black beers brewed in Quebec over the last few years. However, there are certainly more out there that I couldn’t find, including: Les Brasseurs Du Temps’ Obscur Désir (vieillie En Fût De Bourbon), Boquebiere’s Hopkins Imperial Stout (Fût De Bourbon), Hopfenstark’s Baltic Porter de L’Ancrier (Bourbon Barrel) & Microbrasserie La Chouape’s “Post Scriptum: I Love You,” a bourbon barrel aged IS. I have a vertical of Hopfenstark’s Bourbon barrel aged Kamarad Friedrich lined up, but sadly I could not get to it in time for this article. Also, since starting this, a couple of new guys have hit the shelves, but I’m not taking these photo’s over again, ok! For example, Brasseurs Illimités’ Bourbon Barrel aged imperial stout came out a few weeks ago. As well as Brasserie Dunham’s Rum and Brandy Barrel aged soured imperial stout: Vladimir Sour Beaver Riot. Don’t worry though, the latter will appear in a sour stout article I’m working on. For the rest, well, maybe one day.
Barrel aging beer isn’t a new thing, while at the same time it kind of is. I’ve written sentences like that far too often on this blog, but it’s not my fault, the beer world is one contradicting and complex bastard. The Belgians have been aging lambic beer in oak barrels since back in the day. The process allows wild yeasts and bacteria to do their thing and infect the beer (in a good way). This helps to impart those beautifully funky and sour flavors that we beer geeks love – not to mention those complex woody, oakey, and sometimes vanilla-like barrel flavors as well. More recently however, the Americans (and others) started experimenting with aging bigger beers in oak barrels that previously contained different spirits. The ultimate idea behind doing this is to (1) allow these much higher then average ABV brews to age and mellow out over time, (2) to impart woody oak barrel aged flavors to the beer, and (3) to infuse the beer with flavour remnants from the spirits that used to live in the barrels (often bourbon).
So why write an article about only Quebec versions of the style? Why the hell not!? I need a theme, and there are clearly more than enough examples of the style to examine. Plus, I’ll make any excuse to showcase the fantastic beers being produced in my backyard – it’s a no brainer! In my opinion, Quebec is the beer leader of Canada. Generally speaking, we’ve been doing it the longest. Molson is the oldest brewery in North America, McAuslan was the first microbrewery in Canada to bottle beer, and Unibroue – who started around the same time – brought Belgian inspired beers to our land for the first time. Our beers are amazing, there is no questioning it. If you think me saying so is some kind of patriotic bias, I can assure you it is not the case – I care about beer far more then I care about being patriotic. If you don’t believe me, check out the Beer Advocate top 100 list for Canada – 11 out of the top 15 are from Quebec, and we also account for 46% of the entire list. Sorry, my intention wasn’t to go on and on about how good the beer is here, but rather to show that we certainly know what we are doing. Being that there are twelve bloody beers to talk about, I’ll try my best to keep the descriptions on the shorter side. So please sit back and relax as I talk your ear off for a little while – I’m sorry if you get bored. Hey, why don’t you crack open one of your favorite Bourbon Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stouts, I assure you it will pair nicely with the read!
1 – Pit Caribou: No.13 Tennessee Imperial Porter (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
(This is the 2012 edition, it was about a year old when I cracked it). In my opinion, Pit Caribou is starting to climb the ranks as one of the best Quebec Breweries; especially in the world of hops, where they seem to be particularly talented. Although the label on this Imperial Porter only indicates that it is aged in oak barrels, as far as I understand, they are old Bourbon barrels. Wow, I could smell the wild yeast from several feet away as I popped the cap on this one; not at all what I was expecting. It pours out black with some slight red highlights and a giant thick foamy head that never goes anywhere. The aroma is metallic, with loads of earthy brett, and some woody Barnyard funk (what’s going on here!?). It is certainly infected, but in a good way. There is also some mocha, and some fruity black cherries.
For an Imperial Porter this is very dry and rather light bodied. The finish is tart and not very boozy, but there is still a lot of warmth from the alcohol. I’m getting lots of dusty yeasts at work here, with some dusty funk and tart fruit. There is also mocha, rich coffee, and some all around general dark roastiness. It has little to no sweetness, but a lot of fruity black cherries come alive as it warns. It’s all cut down by a pretty hefty bitterness that lingers alongside some subtle oakey vanilla remnants. I am really loving this beer, and it’s insanely easy to drink for 10%. It aged beautifully. Unexpected this was.
2 – St-Ambroise: Stout Impériale Russe: RIS (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
(This is the 2013 edition, it was about six months old when I cracked it). Stout Impériale Russe is a Quebec classic. It’s aged with bourbon soaked wood chips, and it comes out every winter. I’d say it’s probably the most accessible beer on this list, as although it is respected and always sought after, its hefty price, combined with the sheer volume produced, keeps it on the shelves for months. This bottle was about six months old when I cracked it. It pours out like motor oil. It’s thick soupy body froths up as it hits the glass, making an off white head appear; it shrinks down fast, but never really goes away. The aroma begins with a slight earthy yeast presence, followed by a larger than life dark chocolate milkshake thing. The bourbon and oak start coming out with wood, vanilla, and some nutty notes (like marzipan). It has a lot of fruity aromas as well – black cherries in particular. There is only a slight ethanol booziness to it, and it works perfectly with the other aromatics.
Two words, viscous and warming. This is very dry, with less chocolatey sweetness than then nose let on, and more of a bitter and dark roasted coffee finish. Exceptionally bitter in fact, more than I recalled. Rich and decadent this one is. Hints of fruitiness emerge as it warms, with black cherries and currents becoming quite apparent. There is some vanilla as well, and a little bit of star anise. So dry, so bitter. I always love stocking up on these every year – I think this beer suffers from being underrated.
3 – Dieu du Ciel!: Péché Mortel (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
(This is an excerpt from my Dieu du Ciel BA article. This is the 2013 edition, it was a few months old when I cracked it). Péché Mortel is an iconic Imperial Stout. It is one of the few Quebec beers known throughout the US and the rest of the world. The Bourbon Barrel aged version is incredibly sought after; I’ve heard several beer geeks tell me that they stock up on the stuff whenever they can in order to make trades with Americans. That is, if they can hold themselves back from drinking it themselves. I tried it for the first time last year, and it was incredible. I heard they are using the same bourbon barrels again this year as well, so it’s possible the bourbon flavors might be less predominant. It pours out black as night, with some miniscule brown highlights. After sticking my nose in the glass, I’m getting lots of coffee, some breadiness, marzipan, oatmeal, bourbon, and fruity dark cherries. I’m surprised with how much coffee I get on this, I’ve heard many times that coffee flavors fade over time. There is certainly far far less bourbon on the nose as compared to last year.
The taste mimics the nose, with coffee, bourbon, and breadiness, but with some dark chocolate as well, and an oaky vanilla aftertaste. It’s rather dry, and the finish has a lingering bitterness that is mixed with a nice warming alcohol presence. Again, far more coffee forward than I expected, and the bourbon is less present in this batch. The dryness here really brings it to a new lever of drinkability. Not that the original is all that sweet, but I’ve been noticing with some of these barrel aged versions that there is a lingering dryness that the original doesn’t have. Could it be a byproduct of the yeast continuing to eat the residual sugars while in the barrel? I’m not sure exactly, but it works for me!
4 – Le Castor: Catherine Grande Réserve (Rye barrel Aged)
(This is the 2013 edition, it was a few months old when I cracked it). Le Castor is relatively new to the Quebec beer scene, having been launched in 2012. Their reputation exploded when they released an American IPA called Yakima, which at the time was arguably the only solid dry IPA in Quebec. To this day it sells extremely well. Catherine was released at Christmas-time last year alongside a rum barrel aged Barleywine. It pours out black with some brown and red highlights. It looks a little less dense than I expected, but still very inviting. The nose is filled with various complexities, however it’s hard to pick them out through the pretty dense little head resting on top. At first there is a lot of dark Chocolate, mixed with a metallic thing, and a little bit of ethanol. As the head dies down, the mocha comes out, followed by a big whiskey presence. There is this great bready dough thing happening, mixed with marzipan and lots of chocolate milkshake. Woody oak and vanilla make an appearance as well on the nose.
It’s not as thick as I thought it would be, but there are certainly a lot of nice flavours here. It starts with the usual dark chocolate and strong roasted coffee thing, but is then followed by a boozy spirit-like quality from the rye – it compliments everything nicely. The finish has a lingering bitterness, with oak, vanilla, and whiskey resting on the palate. This bad boy is very drinkable for 11% without much age on it (besides the barrel aging of course). As it warms, the oak forward, dough-like flavors really start coming out, providing some delicious woody complexities to the whole thing. I have a second bottle that is pushing about a year now; I think it’s time to crack her open and see how she’s progressed.
5 – Brasserie Dunham: Stout Impériale Russe (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
(2014 edition – I drank this one within a month of bottling) I have four bottles from Brasserie Dunham is this line up. I’m a huge fan, and have written several articles about their beers – if you are interested, you can read them here. The folks at Brasserie Dunham have been extremely busy for the last few years, where they have been experimenting with the barrel aging process probably more than any other brewery in this province – and hey, maybe even the country (although I have no proof of that last statement). This beer (along with the Coffee/vanilla variant) was released at their 3rd anniversary party in spring 2014. It pours out thick and black with a dense (and I mean dense) foamy head that looks like creamy ice cream. The aromas are full of chocolate, with some earthy, almost dusty yeast aromas. There are plenty very dark roasted properties mixed with some dark fruits. The bourbon barrel aging provides some nice marzipan and vanilla aromas, with hints of vanilla and oats.
Wow, this is potent, with lots of dark roasted coffee, dark chocolate, dried prunes and figs, hints of sweetness, and an EXTREMELY bitter finish. It’s dry as hell (in a great way). Although the bourbon isn’t hugely present here, it comes through in the finish, lending some subtle oaky vanilla characteristics alongside warming Bourbon flavours. There is some stone fruits in here as well, with dark cherries coming through in particular. This is a fantastic beer, and will age nicely.
6 – Brasserie Dunham: Stout Impériale Russe – Coffee & Vanilla (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
(2014 edition – I drank this one within a month of bottling). Being quite in love with the regular version, I was super stoked to try the vanilla coffee variant. It pours our jet black with a giant overflowing head that makes for one crazy pour. It starts with earthy and slightly dusty yeast, some woody barrel funk, and lots of chocolate. It’s quite zesty, and a bit fruity, with dark berries coming through. The coffee is very apparent, making for a really nice overall mocha thing, which mixes with the dank oak and vanilla bourbon notes perfectly.
Wow, so dry, so very very dry. The coffee is big on this one, really big. It lends amazingly to the bitterness of the hops, which are also enormous here. Unlike Péché (also made with coffee), there is virtually no sweetness – the bitterness cuts through it all. I’m not getting much of the vanilla, but I have no issue with that. It’s filled with dark chocolate and coffee, some wood tannins, and an aggressively bitter, dry finish that resembles sipping on a short espresso, or Turkish coffee (if you have ever had it). This, for me, is up there as one of the best uses of coffee in a beer that I’ve tasted. Often coffee infused beers can carry that kind of stale coffee taste. Not here, it’s all dark roasted wonderfulness with a bitterness to match. There is some fruitiness as well with dark cherries playing a tiny role. It’s very rich and warming, with so much chocolate coffee going on – mocha bomb!
7 – Le Trèfle Noir: Chernoe Pivo (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
Founded in 2009, Le Trèfle Noir was the first craft brewery in Abitibi-Témiscamingue (Northwestern Quebec). They started with a simple tap room, but demand pushed them to start bottling in 2012. I haven’t had all of their offerings, but I remember enjoying their Saison when I tried it. Also, I had their barrel aged Barleywine, and it was quite balanced and delicious. Chernoe Pivo was the first bottle from them that I saw hit shelves, and the version I’m reviewing is their second batch (as far as I know). This Bourbon Barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout pours out a beautiful thick black, colour with a small beige head that doesn’t dissipate entirely. At first there is a strong fruity chocolate aroma, with black cherries at the front. There is some coffee as well, mixed with bourbon notes of vanilla and oak. I’m getting some banana in here too, which lends very well to the general chocolate presence – creating an awesome banana chocolate sundae thing. There are some slight metallic elements, but they fade quickly.
The mouthfeel is creamy, and the beer is nice and dry, without any viscous sweetness. The finish lingers with some nice hop bitterness and remnants of Bourbon. The taste mimics the nose, but with an even stronger fruity presence, followed by some very dark roasted coffee beans, and the chocolatiness trailing in the finish. There is a good bourbon presence as well, lending vanilla notes and some woody complexities from the oak. This one is pretty easy drinking, and a well rounded example of the style. Definitely one of the fruitiest of the bunch so far, the cherry and dark dried fruit elements are extremely apparent, with only a subtle sweetness, as the beer remains very dry.
8 – Le Bilboquet: Corriveau Impériale (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
Le Bilboquet has existed since 1990, which I had no idea until I read it on their web site. I’ve had many of their products over the years, and they have mostly always been solid. Their Bourbon Barrel aged Scotch Ale is quite a popular item as well, and I’ve been excited to try Corriveau Impériale for some time. This Bourbon Barrel aged oatmeal Imperial stout pours our jet black with beautiful lacing and a sticky head that clings to the glass. I’m getting lots of coco powder and fresh ground coffee beans, with lots of dark berries – blackberries in particular. There is also vanilla, alongside some boozy bourbon, and milk chocolate. It’s quite a complex nose.
Wow, Nice! It’s dry, with just hints of sweetness that is complimented by some vanilla bourbon remnants. It has a nice full body and a great creamy mouthfeel. It’s a lot like the nose, with dark chocolate, coffee, and some dark fruit, followed by lots of chard grain flavours. The bourbon is present, but not overly so, lending some boozy complexities and a vanilla essence. There is a very slight tartness, which works with the fruity components nicely. It is not extremely bitter, but has enough to match the would be viscosity. This is a great example of the style. Nothing bizarre or surprising, just a solid, balanced beer that really hits the spot. A lot of these can be on the sweeter side, but this one is nice and dry, yet still rich and warming. Great stuff.
9 – Les Trois Mousquetaires: Grande Cuvée Porter Baltique – (Bourbon & Brandy Barrel Aged)
(2014 edition – I drank it a few weeks after it’s release) Les Trois Mousquetaires are a bit of an anomaly in Quebec; they mostly brew German style beers in a land that is so Belgian inspired. I’ve always found this refreshing. That being said, Baltic Porters are not of German origin, and despite this brewery’s Germanic influence, all their non-German beers are solid too. This beer is a Brandy and Bourbon barrel aged version of their regular Baltic Porter, and this is the second year that I’ve had the pleasure of getting some. It also happens to be the only Lager in this line-up. It’s only released once a year, but it becomes pretty widely available during that time – I recommend seeking it out when it does, as it’s amazing and pretty accessible. It pours out a dark black with some red highlights; it’s body seems lighter than most of the other on this list. The nose is zesty and filled with chocolate, Bourbon and Brandy. The aromas are quite intoxicating, with pronounced aromatics from the spirits, and not so much from the ethanol. It smells a tad nutty, with some coffee and dried fruit, like raisins and prunes.
The body is more robust than it initially appeared, with lots of bourbon and oak, mixed with tons of dark stone fruit. Last years edition – as well as the non-barrel aged version – is quite sweet, and although this one is sweeter than most of the others in this lineup, it has a nice dry and bitter finish that cuts through the maltyness, leaving a warming Bourbon finish in the back of your tongue. It’s quite creamy, with a bigger head, and more carbonation than last year – a very different beer. All is all this is certainly something to sip by the fire; it’s reminiscent of Chocolate dipped strawberries with brandy poured over top (not that I’ve ever had that before, but you get it!)
10 – Le Trou Du Diable: L’Impératrice (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
(2013 edition – It was over a year old when I drank it) Le Trou Du Diable is a Quebec staple at this point. A few years ago, when I first started to get into craft beer, their offerings were unattainable. They were in the process of doing a huge expansion, and as a result, you can now get their stuff pretty much anywhere. Their barrel aged beers are of particular importance in the province, as they are one of, if the the best at the barrel aging process. Their wild beers are incredible, and although it states it nowhere on the packaging, L’Impératrice seems to be full of brettanomyces. I’ve had this one a few times before and it’s either been intentionally or unintentionally infected – but in the best possible way. When cracking her open, it gushed out just a bit, infusing my table cloth nicely with the dank smells of wild beer. The aroma begins with chocolate covered blackberries. The nose is Brett forward, with all kinds of dusty and earthy yeast complexities mixed with sweet smelling chocolates, and macerated dark berries. There is some coco too, mixed with that stale cigarette thing I often get in infected beers.
It’s incredibly dry up front, which is impressive for an imperial stout. There is some booze, but it’s still smooth and works well against the dusty dry Brett flavors. There are certainly some bourbon components, which lend hints of vanilla, but it’s pretty much just in the finish. As is warms, and my palate adjusts, the dark roasted malts start to come out more, showcasing those rich chocolate and espresso flavours one normally gets in this style of beer. Also, the oak makes a stronger presence, with some woody, rubber-like flavours. However, still, there is a great fresh berry thing happening, that I love. Although I wish I had more of all of these beers, I really wish I had more of this one in particular.
11 – Brasserie Dunham: Lapatt Robust Porter (Canadian Whiskey Barrel Aged)
(2013 edition – it was about a year old when I drank it) Well, as I’ve experienced before, this bottle will explode upon opening. If you can, get your ass outside before cracking it open. Just like l’Impératrice and No.13 Tennessee, whether or not it was intentional, this beer is infected. Again, this is not a bad thing in my opinion. It’s the lowest ABV of the bunch, weighing in at 7%. When trying to pour it out, it’s pretty much entirely foam at first. You can smell the brett from a few feet away. It’s dusty and funky up front, with some nice berry fruit complexities that lend well to lots of coffee and dark chocolate elements. So much brett! There is some oak as well, mixed with just a hint of peaty whiskey.
Wow, it’s crazy dry up front mixed with a hefty bitterness. It’s quite fruity as well, but with so sugars at all. Dark roasted coffee leads the way on this one, mixed in with some blackberries and a lot of dry dusty yeast funk. The body is of medium girth, making it slightly creamy, but also incredibly light and drinkable. The finish carries lots of bitterness, mixed with some light whiskey remnants. I love a good infected dark beer, the yeast really helps lighten the body and removes any residual sugars. It also adds such an interesting fruity element. It’s so drinkable and delicious, I could have one everyday!
12 – Brasserie Dunham: Stout Impériale Russe à L’Érable (Canadian Whiskey Barrel Aged)
(2013 edition – about 2 years old when I drank it) So it turns out that the 12th and last beer of my line up is also the oldest. I’ve never had this one fresh, and I’m not sure why exactly, but I’ve held onto it for about two years – I guess I didn’t want to part with it. It was brewed for Brasserie Dunham’s second anniversary, alongside a couple of other barrel aged beers. It’s an imperial Stout brewed with maple and aged in Canadian Whiskey barrels. It pours out a beautiful thick and velvety black colour, with a cap of light brown head that never goes away. There are lots of coffee-like aromas up front, followed by some berries, oak, and a little yeasty funk. It’s a bit earthy, and a tad meaty (umami?). It’s quite fruity indeed, mixed with all kinds of chocolate and espresso. It even smells a tad acidic.
Wow, this is good. Really damn good. It’s held up perfectly over the years. The body is robust, but there is virtually no sweetness, and the finish cuts everything nicely. It is not nearly as bitter as the bourbon barrel RIS’s above. Instead, the finish is a bit cleaner, and there is a fruitiness here that doesn’t exist in the other ones. The body is so creamy and velvety, with the perfect amount of carbonation to liven it up just a tad. The flavours mesh together wonderfully, with espresso leading the way, mixed with some light blackberry, coco, and just a tiny bit of acidity, finishing with a solid hoppy bitterness. There is not a whole lot of barrel or whiskey, but you can certainly get some of the tannins, and there are hints of vanilla in the finish. As it warms, the whiskey starts to emerge more, lending some spicy flavours and a warming finish. Unlike most awful maple beers that exist, this is very subtle, basically just imparting some faint spicy woody sweetness. I can’t get over this one, I was worried that I had sat on it for way too long, but no, it’s pretty much perfection in my eyes. Now, how do I get more?
Wow, that was pretty long, eh. Thanks for sticking it out! I’m not one to declare winners, so I’m simply not going to. It may not be very exciting or controversial to say, but all 12 of the beers above were fantastic. Some I certainly liked more than others, but they are all great products. Also, without doing real-time verticals, or making sure to drink them all at the same age, it’s not fair to rank, not to mention that I’m no expert. Péché Mortel Bourbon is an amazing beer, sought after by many, and certainly one of the best of the above. Stout Impériale Russe is also up there, if for it’s availability alone. It’s incredibly rich body, but dry flavour, is just timeless. The Dunham Coffee and Vanilla Bourbon RIS floored me with it’s use of coffee – it was like drinking espresso. The various infected beers were also amazing. Brettanomyces can make a beer more lively and thin out the body with lots of effervescence. This can trick your palate a bit when dealing with such big beers like this, making them very dry and VERY easy to inhale. They also create this potent fruity component that compliments the chocolaty portions of these beers, making this great black forest cake like thing. That being said, the most pleasant surprise of the bunch was Dunham’s 2 year old Maple RIS aged in Whiskey Barrels. It was so just much deliciousness packed into a bottle. Perfectly balanced in all the right places, it was one of my favorites of the bunch for sure.
An article by Noah Forrest