Barrel-aged imperial stouts are dead.
Of course, I say this with some irony, following another string of massively hyped barrel-aged stout releases by St. Petersburg's Cycle Brewing. Cycle, which admittedly makes extraordinarily great stouts, has released more than 10 limited-edition barrel-aged imperial stouts this year, each featuring a line at the brewery before opening (in some cases, starting at 5 a.m. or earlier) and a $100+ price tag per bottle on the secondary market within the same day of release.
So, people obviously love barrel-aged imperial stouts — or at least, they're told they love them, or they know they can flip them for a profit — but does that mean that we really need more of them?
When Goose Island first played with aging imperial stouts in bourbon barrels, it was a novel concept. The shelves of your local beer shop weren't filled with bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts. Now, barrel-aged imperial stouts are commonplace and predictable — they've become an inhibition to creativity instead of the fruitful experimentation they started as.
Here's an experiment: Visit any brewery that's been open for, say, a year or more. Ask if they have any special, limited beers, or beers for which they do a special bottle release. I'll set the over/under for "yes" and "a barrel-aged imperial stout" at 75 percent. It's ubiquitous to the point of being boring.
Now, there is a good reason for barrel-aged imperial stouts to be given special treatment. They're expensive, time-consuming and they generally age well, making them good candidates for bottle releases. My gripe is not with barrel-aged imperial stouts, per se — it's with the thought process and motivation that goes into making them.
Here's the formula: brew up a big ol' stout; age it in a barrel that once contained a type of whiskey, rum, brandy or tequila; add a flavoring addition consisting of a sole addition or combination of cocoa, vanilla, hazelnut, coffee, coconut, chili peppers, cinnamon or lactose; have a bottle release.
If you read those instructions and salivated a little, it's okay — I did as I was typing them. There's a reason every brewery seems to want to get in on the barrel-aged stout bandwagon, and it's because these beers more often than not taste pretty good. But they're not special anymore.
What I'd like to see is a bottle release for a beer that is truly special. I want a beer that a brewer put his heart into, working out a concept that actually means something to him, no matter how subtle or how bold.
If a brewer spent a year endlessly tweaking their Belgian dubbel and finally made what they feel is the perfect, ultimate recipe, then I want a bottle of that. If a brewer wants to really take a chance and flavor their house brown ale with a variety of local ingredients, then it may or may not be good, but it will at least be interesting. If a brewer makes an imperial stout and ages it in whiskey barrels, is it because they want to, or because they think they're supposed to?
I'll never stop enjoying barrel-aged imperial stouts. I've got more than a dozen of them in the beer fridge (and yes, half of them are from Cycle). But I'm also never going to get excited about them the way I used to, when they were somewhat uncommon; not on draft and in bottles at every taproom and bottle shop in town.
If you're a brewer and you're still reading this, consider holding off on that barrel-aged stout. We have plenty. Instead, why not give us something new, something exciting? After all, that's how barrel-aged stouts got to where they are now. Maybe your innovation will be the next thing people line up at 5 a.m. and wait for.