Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout is a generally well-regarded Imperial Stout that they’ve been brewing for 21 years. It’s not barrel aged or laden with adjuncts in any way, which perhaps lowers it in some rankings, but it’s been a terrific beer for decades nonetheless. It’s allegedly the first beer Garrett Oliver brewed upon taking over as brewmaster.
Like many strong stouts, BCS ages in the bottle well which makes it a good choice for a vertical tasting. I pulled out a bottle of the 2013, the 2014, and the 2015 vintages from the cellar, and invited a few friends over for a taste test. None of us are expert tasters, but the group tasting helped us all communicate and discuss the beer. Being able to search for the flavors and aromas other people are smelling and tasting helps you discover those flavors yourself. These beers are released near the end of the year referenced, so 2013’s version is just over two years old and 2015 is brand new.
2013 was the most complex, as you’d expect from an aged beer. It was still decently carbonated, and the coffee malts really shined through making it smooth and drinkable. There were notes of leather, cigars, and some smokiness.
2014 did not have the smokiness that we noted in the 2013. It definitely had a rich caramel sweetness to it, with less coffee showing through. It was not bitter, but there was just enough hops to keep it from feeling heavy.
2015 was pretty fresh, and was clearly the bitterest of the three. The hops seemed to crowd out some of those coffee flavors we’d tasted in the older versions resulting in less flavor overall. This beer was softer, with a light mouthfeel, and tasted almost watered down in comparison.
So the consensus result was that a little bit of age generally helps BCS. This is perhaps true of most stouts, depending on your own tastes and preferences. A year or so in the bottle lets everything mellow out a little bit. A fresh stout full of complex flavors doesn’t always need hops to round it out, and sometimes those hops fading a little makes way for the other flavors. Additionally an extra year for all the flavors to steep and meld often result in a more cohesive experience.
Of course, if you prefer the harshness of fresh hops in your stout, or enjoy the biting bourbon characteristics often present in barrel aged stouts, a fresh one might be your best bet. On the other hand, aging it to two years and beyond can flatten it out towards a more sipping-whiskey experience where hops and carbonation don’t play much of a role. This let’s some of the roasts in the malts play louder, and often you get some of those chewier flavors typical with an aged liquor, like tobacco or leather.
No matter your preference, aging a beer can be a fun learning experience. Two years isn’t even particularly old, but these beers all tasted distinctly different despite being exactly the same. I recommend you try cellaring one or two away next time you buy a pack of stouts, what you discover might surprise you.
Michael can be found on Twitter and Untappd and suspects the seven year old Fegley's Blueberry Belch in his basement did not age well. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.