When the autumn winds blow in, there are two ways to warm oneself: from the outside and from within. For the former, we have coats and blankets. For the latter, we have stouts.
Maybe more than any other beer style, stouts have the ability to be big, bold, brash and boozy. It’s not unusual to see a stout clock in at 10% ABV or higher, and brewers aren’t afraid to get wild with the adjuncts, either. Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, marshmallow, cream — even hot peppers — are all common.
Of course when you swing for the fences, it’s easy to strike out, so Revue decided to put together a blind taste test of 12 stouts on a grey afternoon. With beers this strong, though, we knew we needed help.
We decided to recruit the taste buds of two local beer lovers and friends who’ve gathered a following on Instagram for their drinking adventures, Adam Young (westmichigan_beerdguy) and Ryan W. (bantam_beer_guy). They’re knowledgeable, fun and friendly. Young even brought us the best brew of the day, though it wasn’t local: Fundamental Observation by Anaheim’s Bottle Logic Brewing. He also graced us with a taste of PBR Hard Coffee. No comment.
That being said, the team we put together ended up being some pretty harsh graders. At the end, even we looked at the final scores and thought they should be higher. I considered grading on a curve to more accurately represent our experience, but I’m sticking with the numbers out of journalistic integrity — and maybe a dash of laziness.
Similarly, the interesting part of a blind taste test is that you end up liking beers you thought you hated, and vice versa. Some of the low performers here, we’ve had and enjoyed plenty of times. So just know: Your mileage may vary.
Let’s get to the results.
[Editor's Note: This story was written and published before certain controversies with one of the breweries involved.]
Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids
OK. Yes. We agree: This is almost disappointingly obvious. It’s not that we have anything against Founders, but everyone likes an underdog, right? And KBS is definitely not that. Yet we found it to be pretty much the definitive stout. It looks how a stout should look, feels how a stout should feel, and tastes how a stout should taste. It’s boozy with a nice balance of bitter and sweet coming from the coffee and chocolate respectively. As one taster said, “It warms your soul. You wanna put a blanket on and cozy up with it.”
Don’t Harsh My Mellow
Odd Side Ales, Grand Haven
An imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with chocolate and vanilla added: Mark this one down as biggest surprise of the day — a few tasters even considered it their favorite. It starts out great and gets better as it warms up, but the biggest flavor you’ll notice with every sip is BOOZE. If you’re a fan of bourbon and/or dark chocolate, this is the winter warmer for you.
Brewery Vivant, Grand Rapids
Vivant’s bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout stands out from the rest in a great way. It’s not cloyingly boozy, but rather pleasantly woody, with a nice amount of smoky malt flavor as well. It’s well-balanced while being packed full of flavor, and yet a bit sneaky on the ABV. Editor Amy L Charles just told me she went and picked up more of this favorite at the store after our tasting.
New Holland Brewing, Holland
Here’s another beer with a reputation as one of the heavy hitters in the stout world. Dragon’s Milk is arguably at the forefront of New Holland’s brand, down to the giant metal dragon in their Grand Rapids location. We noticed some cherry flavors with a touch of booze, but our main observation is just how dangerously drinkable it is. Nothing about the beer is overwhelming — and you wouldn’t know the ABV was that high from the flavor alone. Careful!
B.B.A. Nutter Your Business
Grand Armory Brewing, Grand Haven
Now here’s a divisive beer. Some of us loved it, some not so much. It was also a bit confusing, as nearly everyone was convinced this was actually a hazelnut beer. In fact, one of our tasters specifically said that she likes this beer because it’s hazelnut (which it’s not) but she never likes peanut butter beers (which this is). Life comes at you fast.
That said, some tasters liked the boozy and nutty flavor, while others found it to be unbalanced and overly flavored. You'll have to see for yourself.
Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids
When you’re tasting 12 beers, the drinking order makes a huge difference. Founders’ classic Breakfast Stout may have suffered a bit from being the second beer we had; alas, we had mixed feelings on it. If you’re a black coffee lover, this is the beer for you. It’s all roast, with the same bitterness you’d get from a cup of joe in the aftertaste.
Neapolitan Milk Stout
Saugatuck Brewing Co., Saugatuck
New Holland Brewing Co., Holland
Perrin Brewing Co., Comstock Park
Special Double Cream Stout