Breweries an ocean apart experiment with limited-edition series of stellar stouts.
By Brian Yaeger
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder of Copenhagen’s gypsy beer company Mikkeller Brewing, is undoubtedly an artist, but his forays into parallel brewing—brewing slightly tweaked versions of one beer—is closer to science. His hyper-focus on exploiting ingredients has not only sent connoisseurs and beer tickers into a craze to collect each limited line’s installment, it cleanly—almost academically—showcases how a specific strain of yeast or type of hop alters a beer’s flavor profile. In a time when craft beers often include everything but the kitchen sink, Mikkeller’s parallel beers are a break in the clouds.
One of his latest trials was his Single Hop IPAs, in which he bittered one base recipe with just one hop varietal; one version showcased Nelson Savuin hops from New Zealand, for example, while another featured British East Kent Goldings. Sampling the series illustrates hops’ flavor spectrum: From citrusy to spicy to grassy, each beer’s flavor differs from the next. For his Yeast Series, he brewed a hoppy pale ale, then split and inoculated it with five different yeast strains—lager, Hefeweizen, American, Belgian and Brettanomyces.
Bjergsø’s Black Hole series, first brewed last year, consists of a single batch of coffee-, honey- and vanilla-infused Imperial Stout, divided into five smaller ones. In addition to a control beer, the other four quantities were used to fill different barrels to see how each affected the beer. Unlike a similar parallel project, Italian brewery Revelation Cat’s Woodwork Series, which aged a base beer on various virgin woods, the Black Hole series employed barrels that formerly held bourbon, Scotch, rum and wine. Bjergsø will release the series again in January with the addition of an iteration matured in Cognac barrels.
Stateside, Michigan’s Dark Horse Brewing launched its own a line of cool-weather stouts. However, instead of one base style aged five ways, Dark Horse’s series comprises five completely separate, un-aged stouts ranging from the peat-smoked Fore to the best-selling blueberry Tres. Head brewer Aaron Morris crafts just 70 barrels of each, and releases them monthly throughout winter. And while he never intended them to be drunk in order, the progression from the late fall release of the bitter One to the burly Plead the 5th’s winter debut makes for a natural tasting lesson.
MIKKELLER BLACK HOLE: Different barrels for each Mikkeller Black Hole stout change each beer’s taste, aroma and mouthfeel, yet because the stouts use the same base, each label reports a 13.1% ABV.
1. Black Hole: The un-aged base brew’s thinner mouthfeel and body set it apart from its barreled brethren. It begins oily and tannic and stays dry through the finish; instead of the expected vanilla bean, the brew suggests cocoa nibs.
2. Bourbon: Sherry and Madeira flavors ride this iteration to a smooth finish. As the beer warms, fluffy marshmallow notes come through.
3. Scotch: Islay Scotch barrages the palate with smoke and peat. This love-it-or-hate-it style of Scotch holds true for this beer as well, with fans sure to appreciate this “bonfire in a peat bog.” As it warms, look for ash notes.
4. Rum: This barrel imparts the Bourbon sweetness but it’s not nearly as oaky, likely due to multiple prior uses that would’ve leeched the wood flavor. The rum best marries with added coffee, honey and vanilla.
5. Wine: The most challenging supporting role comes from this red wine barrel. The currant and dark fruit flavors of the wine sharply contrast the bitter coffee. Let the beer breathe, and herb and lavender flavors emerge.
DARK HORSE: The only thing Dark Horse’s stouts have in common is their label, inspired by parts of a horse figurine a patron welded for the brewery. Each brew’s a thoughtful, well-executed iteration; no novelties here.
1. One: This oatmeal stout has hints of dark, bitter chocolate in the nose, but the scent’s distinctly cola-esque. The taste follows suit, with smooth oatmeal balancing subtle roasted bitterness and a dry lactic tang.
2. Too: Deeper and milkier than One, this cream stout is a velvety ballad of a brew. No flash, no fuss; just smooth, lactose-tinted roast from beginning to end.
3. Tres: Blueberry pie swarms up the nose and around the mouth. But as strong as the berry notes are, an equally muscular roastiness keeps the fruit in check. The seamless swallow’s punched up by super-spritzy carbonation.
4. Fore: Brewed with peat-smoked malt, this brew has the earthy smell of Scotch, the cocoa qualities of stout and a pour like motor oil. Peat and a jerky touch meet in a slick brew that’s pleasantly subdued for all its facets.
5. Plead the 5th: This roasty, chocolaty imperial stout isn’t boozy in the traditional sense; instead, it’s laced with a very deliberate, pleasant peppery alcohol spice that gives the beer some soul.