Whenever Black Sabbath founder Tony Iommi straps on a guitar, he releases an aural evil that manifests itself in the form of some of the heaviest, most sinister riffs known to man, woman or devil-beast.
Known as the father of heavy metal, Iommi’s songwriting style can be summarized as equal parts deep, dark and brooding, and he backs that with a fluid complexity that defies what someone with only eight complete fingers should be able to play.
In many ways, an Iommi riff shares many similarities to a finely crafted imperial stout.
Most people look at imperial stouts as big, thick malt bombs. While they are indeed all of those, they’re also nuanced pours, often infused with savory, roasty flavors (coffee and chocolate, in particular) and sweet aromas. Many are also quite hoppy.
They have a complexity beyond their evil, blacker-than-black appearance.
And lucky for Mitten State drinkers, Michigan’s craft breweries also make a lot of them. We assembled nine Michigan-made imperial stouts from those available at the time and from the cellar and decided to see which ones we liked best in a blind tasting.
Reviewers for this most difficult assignment included:
- Joe Boomgaard, the Beer Czar of Revue who thinks the best vocalists of Black Sabbath are, in order from best to worst: Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Tony Martin, bassist Geezer Butler’s fart and some guy who mumbles a lot.
- Jayson Bussa, assistant editor of Revue whose idea of “hard rock” is Fall Out Boy.
- Rachel Harper, the new designer for sister publication MiBiz who gets her one free pass from the embarrassment of these cheeky comments.
- Nick Manes, a reporter at MiBiz and restaurant menu fan who likely already knows that the Black Sabbath burger at Kuma’s in Chicago comes with blackening spice, housemade chili, pepperjack cheese and red onion and costs $13, which coincidently, was the number in the title of Black Sabbath’s latest album.
- John Wiegand, a reporter at MiBiz, millennial and musical n00b who probably thinks Black Sabbath is a band of African-Americans who only play on Sundays.
Here’s what we determined.
1. Plead The 5th
Dark Horse Brewing Co., Marshall, 11.0% ABV
Whoa — here’s a stout with a super-thick body that’s the color of motor oil with great chocolatey and dark roasty flavors. It’s “delicious as hell” and “smooth in all the right places” — whatever that means. Did we mention it’s thick? A very well-executed stout that’s so well done, the Beer Czar actually gave it a perfect score. Goddamn!
2. Expedition Stout
Bell’s Brewery, Galesburg, 10.5% ABV
Another thick stout that pours nearly black with a tan head. Light carbonation. This one really clings to the glass. Not much in the aroma, but the taste is phenomenal. Sweet and roasty, yet it manages to go down smooth. “It’s hefty with a body like an angel,” said one reviewer, obviously drunk.
3. Breakfast Stout
Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids, 8.3% ABV
It’s obvious this is a coffee-flavored stout. Coffee carries over to the beer’s flavor, which leans heavily toward espresso notes. It’s no one-trick-pony, as there are complementary notes of dark chocolate thrown in for good measure. It looks and tastes the part of a flavored imperial stout, although it’s slightly thin in body. (BRING BACK THE BABY ON THE LABEL!)
4. Imperial Stout
Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids, 10.5% ABV
This beer is DARK and “so thick you could cut it with a steak knife.” The great chocolate and coffee aromas give way to a slightly boozy taste. This one “coats the tongue like a quart of Valvoline.” It’s savory, roasty and smooth — the perfect fireplace sipper. There’s a lot going here.
5. 30th Anniversary Ale
Bell’s Brewery, Galesburg, 11.0% ABV
Thick and oily with a khaki head. There’s more carbonation than in some other examples that helps bring out the big, slightly sweet aroma. The taste offers some smoky notes matched with a welcome hoppy bitterness. But it’s boozy. Here’s one to throw in the cellar for a while and revisit with a little age.
6. Giant Slayer
Tri-City Brewing Co., Bay City, 9.0% ABV
Coats the glass nicely, and offers some roasty aromas. It almost comes across as a barrel-aged stout in the nose. However, the flavor is a bit harsh, if not tart (cherries?) at the end. It’s syrupy and chewy and moderately carbonated. “It’s just OK.”
Greenbush Brewing Co., Sawyer, 9.0% ABV
Looks and feels thinner and lighter than an imperial stout should. The brewer’s yeast almost overpowers the aroma — as well as the taste. That said, it tastes better than it smells with some slightly sweet notes. It’s not a bad beer, but it’s also not at the top of the pack.
North Peak Brewing Co., Traverse City, 9.0% ABV
While one reviewer liked this one — “It’s f***ing great, but I could be intoxicated,” he said, clearly acknowledging his state of inebriation — the rest said it had issues. It’s thin and soapy looking. Some sugary and molasses notes give it a somewhat sweet aroma, but the flavor lets you down like a bad date. “Meh.”
9. Moher Stout
Short’s Brewing Co., Bellaire, 9.7% ABV
Something seemed off with this one. It featured a pungent, acidic aroma one reviewer likened to nail polish remover. Likewise, the taste was overpoweringly acidic, with a dry, “cider-esque” finish. “Not a pleasant drinking beer.”