Sunday, December 9, 2012

I'm the kind of guy who likes his stouts imperial. Can't understand what I mean? Well, you soon will!

Beer: BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout
Brewery: Flying Monkeys (Barrie)
Type: Imperial Stout
ABV: 10%

Ah, Flying Monkeys.  Definitely one of the big names in the Ontario craft beer scene.  They really have been one of the first out of the gate to apply American brewing practices and techniques (and American hops) to their brews, giving us one of the province's first - and, in my opinion, best - American IPAs, Smashbomb Atomic, as well as Netherworld, a Black IPA (or "Cascadian Dark Ale").   But if you were to go back in time a few years, take a look at the brewery that sits by Lake Simcoe and consider its image and output, you would be hard-pressed to have convinced anyone that this brewery was a few years away from being one of the zanier, wildest craft breweries in the province.  First of all, the name was much simpler and less exciting back then - Robert Simpson Brewing Company, a tribute to the first mayor of Barrie (who himself was a brewmaster, much like a certain mayor of Halifax I could mention).   When I first started working at the campus bar in Waterloo, we always had Robert Simpson Confederation Ale on tap, and it was...okay.  Actually, that's being generous - it was a pretty bland amber ale, and that's about it.  Their light ale was pretty good for a light beer, I will say, but their standard lager was pretty forgettable.  Basically, Robert Simpson suffered from a problem plaguing many an Ontario craft brewery - they weren't really brewing anything interesting.  The labels were traditional, and frankly, pretty boring, and the brews were similar to many being brewed across the province.  Nothing to really get excited about.

But a few years ago, you could start to see some changes, starting with a redesign of the brewery's beer labels to reflect a more quirky, modern art style.  The zen, Snapple-like slogans that are now featured in all Monkeys brews began to appear on Robert Simpson packaging and coasters. Then, in 2009, came the drastic change, as owner Peter Chiobo announced that the brewery was completely changing its name and image to the more psychedelic and seemingly Ken Casey-inspired Flying Monkeys.  Admittedly, my first reaction was one of incredulity.  Really?  You have a chance to change your name, and it's Flying Monkeys?  Like many, I was unconvinced at first, but with the release of their first Monkey brew, Hoptical Illusion, I started to see more of where the brewery was heading.  As Peter explained: "it'll be weird for a while, but the new name opens up so many more possibilities for us to express ourselves."  And this was totally true - Robert Simpson Smashbomb Atomic IPA just doesn't really work, does it?  This Hoptical brew was no American IPA to be sure, but it was hoppy and flavorful.  It became one of my go-to brews on tap.  When it was announced that Smashbomb Atomic IPA was coming on draught, excitement hit fever pitch, and it became my recommended IPA for folks who wanted a hop bomb.

Now, I'm completely hooked and will readily purchase any Monkeys brew I can get my hands on.  Like the bigger American craft brews, Monkeys has been experimenting with its brewing potential while appealing to the beer geeks out there with brews like Supercollider, their double IPA (which admittedly wasn't my favorite), and the newsmaking Alpha-Fornication, a self-proclaimed "world's hoppiest beer," which I unfortunately cannot claim to have tried, but heard it tasted more or less like drinking hop cones.  Not all of their one-offs have worked, but the desire to experiment is strong, and I salute them for it.  Their latest offering represents a big divergence from their normal trend of brewing, eschewing the usual hop-dominated brews and opting for something from the imperial stout spectrum.  And it's inspired by one of the giants of the Canadian music scene, the Barenaked Ladies.

Apparently, the guys from Barenaked Ladies hung out with the Flying Monkeys folks in September, and together they worked to make this new brew, which instead of being hoppy and citrussy would be a rich chocolate stout.  While Peter admits that the stout recipe was his own recipe, the BNL guys were excited about the chocolate stout idea, and helped in the brewing process by adding ingredients to the tuns, including the Ecuadorian cocoa nibs.  So yeah, I guess you can safely say that the "BNL" is essentially a marketing thing, but who the hell cares?  If it gets people excited about craft beer, I'm all for it.

Released a couple of weeks ago at the LCBO, BNL Imperial Chocolate Stout comes in a quirkily-decorated box, and a higher than usual price tag: around thirteen bucks.  But take it from me - it's totally worth it, because I can safely proclaim that this brew is one of the best to come out of Ontario this year.  Period.

Let's dive in, shall we?

Normally, I like to start things off in my reviews by considering the appearance of the brew, but for BNL stout I have to make an exception and start with the nose, because the second that we removed the bottlecap to this brew, the entire room was filled with the sweet smell of rich milk chocolate.  I've never encountered anything like this before.  Sweet chocolate, roasted marshmallow, a touch of toasted malt, dark cocoa, and a hint of grape or currant. Absolutely stunning, and this great smell greeted me with every sip of the beer.

The beer itself is jet black with a hint of dark chestnut around the edges.  It poured a bit hot, so there was considerable foam to work through, but once it settled, a sturdy cap of mocha foam had set up a permanent camp atop the brew, and yielded some impressive lacing.

The imperial character of BNL comes out a bit more to the taste than in the nose, but it is still overshadowed by the impressive array of chocolate flavours, both sweet and dark-dry.  It's pretty safe to call this brew a "chocolate bomb."  Good mix of milk chocolate, and dark, dry chocolate.  Really, the best way for me to describe this beer is that it tastes like having assorted chocolates in your mouth, and then washing the whole thing down with a decent, roasty imperial stout.  It's pretty damned tasty, I have to say.   Decent carbonation, nice carbonation does the trick.  Quite creamy.

Just a damned terrific brew, and certainly well worth the pricetag, at least once - or as a Christmas present (hint hint).  Loads of chocolate, but enough imperial qualities to give your tastebuds something to work with.   This brew is an excellent addition to the Ontario beer pantheon, and hopefully a sign of greater things to come.  These are the sorts of brews you can find in many a great beer store in the States - I'm happy that this one comes from our neck of the woods!  (Grade: A)

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