Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When in Doubt, Try Two (Or Eight!)

Beer: Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout
Brewery: Samuel Smith's (Tadcaster, UK)
Type: Oatmeal Stout
ABV: 5%

It's the middle of an oppressive Ontario heatwave, so what better time than to review a hearty English stout!

This is a beer I have been waiting for a long time to try, but for some ridiculous reason - perhaps a missed shipment or special order gone awry - the LCBO decided to release this thick, hearty stout in the dead of summer.  But since the LCBO's motto seems to be "drink what you're given and quit yer bitchin," I'll take it when I can get it.  But seriously, this thing had late spring or early autumn written all over it.

Samuel Smith's is among my favorite English breweries; at the very least it's in the top five.  And it's no small wonder - their Oatmeal Stout, Brown Ale and Imperial Stout are top class, and their summer and winter seasonals (Raspberry Ale and Winter Warmer, respectively) are first rate brews.  So, whenever I come across one of these handsome bottles featuring a variation of the White Rose of York (Tadcaster is in northern Yorkshire), I will snap it up gladly.

Now, the biggest issue with drinking certain brews in the summer is of course the difficulty in storing and serving them a proper temperature.  Brews like light ales, pale lagers, pilsners, wheat beers and fruit-infused beers are truly the best fit for the summer - not only are they generally lighter and more refreshing in the oppressive heat, but they also seem to like being kept in cold refrigerators for longer without going funky, and taste best when they are quite cold.   With stouts, porters, barleywines, Scottish Wee Heavies, schwartzbiers and other heavier brews, the summer is not really ideal.  Keeping heartier brews in the fridge for too long tends to wreak havoc on their balance (I've had many a neglected dark brew go flat and become undrinkable  from prolonged cold exposure).  But underchill them, or consume them on the patio in the blazing heat, and they become...well, gross.  Imagine drinking a warm pint of sludgy Guinness when it's 40 degrees outside and you'll get the idea.

A week ago, I came across a dozen of these Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stouts at the LCBO, and wisely decided to pick up at least two of them.   If I can impart any rule of drinking beer - and this shouldn't be too hard a rule to follow - it is this: when in doubt, buy more than one.  Not only will you have more beer, you'll have greater opportunity to ensure that the beer you're trying wasn't just a fluke.  I was at a beer tasting last week, and our host had picked up six bottles of "The Abyss", an imperial stout from Deschutes Brewery of Oregon.     Five of them were infected, which means that unwanted bacteria were involved at some point in the process and will through off - positively or negatively - the overall taste of the beer.   (For more info on infected beers, check out this great summary at RateBeer).  Not that I'm suggesting that you buy this many brews at one time - for expensive craft brews, this can really add up - but at least a second bottle will be well worth your trouble.  Some brews might take a second or third sampling before you finally "get" them, so its always a great idea to give them a second look.

My issue with the first bottle was that I didn't let the brew chill long enough, because I was worried about cold shocking the brew.  Big mistake on my part, because if you've ever drank a pop out of the fridge that wasn't chilled enough, you'll know what happens next.  Instead of the silky mouthfeel of an oatmeal stout, I got an aggressively carbonated mess that, while still drinkable, was an unmitigated disaster.  But re-chilling it in the fridge would serve to completely eliminate all carbonation, and lets face it - re-chilled beer in the fridge is disgusting.   I was pretty let down, but with my trusty second bottle in hand, I decided to give it another go the next evening, and I have to say: what a difference the extra fridge time made!  This was a complete turnaround from the first bottle, and probably tasted much closer to the brewer's initial intentions.  I would be doing him or her a disservice to rate a beer that only tasted bad because of my own damned fault, so if I feel something was wrong on my end, I make sure to give the beer a second chance.  This of course is the review from that second bottle:

Poured into my trusty Duvel chalice. Dark, nearly black, with some sharp caramel hues around the rim. Leaves a frothy inch-high off-white head that survives fairly well, and leaves some flecks of lacing and a solid ring towards the end of the pint.

Nose is lovely coffee, chocolate, caramel, roasted marshmallow, toasty malts and other fantastic examples of deliciousness.  All great things to find in an oatmeal stout.

Rich, hearty, full of flavor, its no wonder Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout has developed such a great reputation. (it's mentioned prominently among legendary beer-writer Michael Jackson's list of "500 Beers To Try Before You Die.") No chance of any flavor retreating here - the coffee, chocolate, toasted malts and caramel notes are amped up as high has they deserve to be, making each sip a joy.

Mouthfeel is surprisingly light, silky, and coats the palate wonderfully.  A night in the cold, then just a few minutes to warm a little made all the difference for this beer.

Great stuff, easily in my top five oatmeal stouts. As flavorful as an imperial stout, but light bodied and low enough in alcohol to allow for several pints worth in an evening. Will be back for more, hopefully to enjoy them in much more suitable weather...  (Grade: A)

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