This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
Every Chicago beer drinker knows—January is stout season. What exactly that means to you, however, is completely subjective. Do you prefer an easy going, roasty winter-warmer? Do you like a little vanilla, coffee, or even pepper to add something different? Or are you a person who lives for the boozy depth and complexity that comes from beer aged on wood? It wasn’t too long ago that we all knew what to expect in a stout. Today, the word “stout” will always need further clarification, and the breadth of choice is astounding.
That’s where Stout Night comes in. Alongside our friends at Few Brews Beer Club, we brought together 50 Chicagoland stouts representing every nuance the style has to offer. With nearly 50 of our readers and industry friends in attendance, we set out to review and rank each offering from our neighboring breweries. The catch…? A blind tasting with the identity of each beer hidden from all. The beers are ranked on the liquid alone, without the prejudice a recognizable name or fancy packaging often instills.
The only guideline? Judge a beer to style. In other words, an oatmeal stout is judged on it’s own merits and can stand alongside a bourbon barrel-aged coffee stout with vanilla. So with pencils in hand and simplified BJCP score sheets available to all, the tasting began (critiquing aroma, mouthfeel, flavor and overall impression). Several hours and many beers later, the results are in.
These are the results of Stout Night II, including Chicago’s Best…
50. Twisted Hippo Black Umbrella
OATMEAL STOUT – 7.6%
What should have been a dry and roasty oatmeal rye stout exhibited all kinds of off flavors and an unpleasent carbonation – which leads us to believe this bottle was infected. The lowest ranked beer by a significant margin.
49. Off Color Myshka
RUSSIAN SERF STOUT – 3.5%
At 3.5%, Myshka never stood a chance in a field of whales and ABV giants. Although Off Color pulls an impressive amount body and flavor out of the minimal amount of malt they must’ve used to brew this sessionable beer, it’s a significantly lighter stout than any of the others on this list – and probably than most you’ll ever drink.
48. Illuminated Blue Velvet
WEST LOOP, CHICAGO
BLUEBERRY STOUT – 8.0%
The description promises roasted malt, bitter chocolate, and cookie with a healthy dose of blueberry – but the general consensus was that something was off here… We’ve had very mixed experiences with blueberry in beer in the past, and this was no different.
47. Solemn Oath Most Important Beverage of the Day
COFFEE MILK STOUT – 7.2%
There is no shortage of coffee in this milk stout. Jam-packed with two different roasts of Intelligentisia beans, the coffee overshadows the other flavors you’d hope to get out of the beer a bit, like the sweet orange peel, and it leaves the beer with an almost gritty and unfiltered mouthfeel. This bottle also gushed uncontrollably upon opening, adding an unexpected un-drinkability factor.
46. Hopewell Dluxe
LOGAN SQUARE, CHICAGO
IMPERIAL COFFEE STOUT – 9.4%
The first packaged stout from Hopewell delivered an aroma-packed punch of bright coffee notes. Using a Honduras roast from Chicago’s Metric Coffee, this stout delivered plenty on the nose, but came across unexpectedly dry, and less fudgey than advertised, at 9.4% The coffee exhibited more green, acidic notes, than the roastiness we’d hoped for.
45. Local Option Exorcist
LINCOLN PARK, CHICAGO
Foreign/Export Stout – 8.5%
This one was pretty true to style for an export stout – as in, it was the driest beer in the entire lineup. Dark fruit notes barely showed through, and what was showcased an almost chalky dry finish.
44. Ten Ninety Stoute Stache
“GLENVIEW” STOUT – 6.5%
We can’t say for sure what a “Glenview” stout is, but Stout Stache missed the mark a bit on body and exhibited an off-putting almost metallic flavor.
43. Sketchbook Common Culture
OATMEAL STOUT – 5.4%
An easy going oatmeal stout that was likely a victim of the incredible competition. This is smooth up front with a subtle coffee that was a little less pronounced than we anticipated, based on the description. We’ll try this one again next time we’re at the taproom.
42. Forbidden Root Major Label Debut
WEST TOWN, CHICAGO
AMERICAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.2%
Unfortunately for Forbidden Root, their take on the imperial stout seemed to get lost in the mix – which is a shame, because for all intents and purposes, this was a solid beer. Not overpowering, despite the ABV, and even a bit milky. Still, apparently a tad unmemorable for most.
41. Penrose Vanta
DRY HOPPED AMERICAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.5%
Another just fine imperial stout that seemed to leave folks expecting something more memorable for the style. A chocolately and fairly smooth beer, with just a tinge of bite.
40. 3 Floyds Blot Out the Sun
IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.4%
Chocolate and hop flavors faintly stick out in this imperial stout from one Northwest Indiana brewery. ‘Blot Out’ appeared to miss the mark and came across a bit bland.
39. Lo Rez Public Declaration
IMPERIAL STOUT – 8.6%
The alcohol dominates from start to finish, which is saying a lot in this boozy spread. Balanced throughout, though we don’t remember too much more jumping out on this one.
38. Around The Bend Black Forest
IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.0%
This is likely a love-it-or-hate-it beer for most, as the addition of cherries and dark chocolate add a sweet bitterness that isn’t for everyone. A (black forest cake) dessert beer for cold winter nights.
37. Burnt City Barrel-Aged Forsaken
LINCOLN PARK, CHICAGO
BARREL-AGED STOUT – 8.3%
Coffee and bourbon are easily distinguishable, but a…charred chocolate flavor seems to stick out the most in this overall “fair” brew.
36. Short Fuse Imperial Stout of Impending Doom
SCHILLER PARK, IL
IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.5%
With a name like this, one would expect something a bit bolder, with a heftier mouthfeel. Nevertheless, the coffee and dark chocolate characteristics of this brew made it a solid entry.
35. Church Street Holy Moly
BARREL-AGED MILK STOUT – 7.5%
With so many big and bold flavors in the field it was tough for some of the smaller players to stand out. But this classic sweet English-style stout held its own with roasty coffee and chocolate, and a creamy finish for a rich well-rounded offering.
34. Imperial Oak Udderly Black
WILLOW SPRINGS, IL
MILK STOUT – 5.4%
As the name suggests, this was one milky milk stout from the Southwestern ‘burb favorite. A jet black pour, with a dark tan head hint at the roastiness of this brew, and help tease at some of the subtle coffee characteristics.
33. Open Outcry In-The-Money
MORGAN PARK, CHICAGO
RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 13.1%
A big and bold Russian imperial stout with coffee & maple that’s very aromatic, dark and flavorful with a thick mouthfeel. At 13.1% ABV, it’ll warm you up too!
32. Spiteful G.F.Y. Stout
AMERICAN STOUT – 8.0%
How rude! I’d rather drink the beer instead. The sweet aroma can be a bit misleading for this malty stout. The Cascade hops in the brew really come through and can potentially overwhelm the palate for some, though it’s pretty enjoyable overall.
31. Metal Monkey Fonkey Mucker
RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.1%
A hefty dose of peanut butter and lactose hit the tongue upon first sip of FM, making for a creamy mouthfeel and a bit of a style misnomer. This was certainly a far milkier stout than expected. Unfortunately, another unexpected quality was the glob of PB-like yeast cake that poured its way into the glass as well. Despite that surprise, a pleasant drinker.
30. Empirical Imperial Rye Stout
IMPERIAL RYE STOUT – 8.2%
The booze is pretty pronounced, even in this lineup, but it still balanced the rye with the typical characteristics of a traditional stout nicely. One of the best we’ve had from Empirical in a while.
29. Hop Butcher For The World Milkstachio
MILK STOUT – 6.0%
Brewing with nuts can often be a daunting task, given the oiliness they can bring to the table. Nuts! But, this HBFTW x DryHop Brewers collab is a welcome balance of pistachio meets milk stout. In fact, some might say it’s such a unique take on the style, that it’s surprising how middle-of-the-pack this one fared.
28. Marz Pastry Boy
DOUBLE MILK Stout – 7.0%
In terms of stouts, those of the recently dubbed ‘pastry variety’ seem to be the new “it” beer. Marz’s version of the style balances a touch of vanilla sweetness and cinnamon spice in a creamy milk stout, with a delightfully doughy finish. Mmmhmm.
27. Rock Bottom Sweet Demotion
RIVER NORTH, CHICAGO
AMERICAN STOUT – 6.8%
The hop-forward characteristics of this American stout helped this brew stick out from the competition in a good way – despite its overall moderate rating.
26. Horse Thief Hollow 2015 Bad Mama Jama
BARREL-AGED Imperial Stout – 10.0%
Another beer that’s a victim of the incredible beer surrounding it. Representing the oldest beer at Stout Night II, the heat is subtle and the barrel character really shines through. We’ll be looking for another bottle of this in the future.
25. Hubbard’s Cave El Zacaton
Imperial Stout – 12.0%
Though the three different types of chilies (ancho, guajillo & habanero) used in this beer didn’t completely overshadow the sweetness, it left more to be desired and compromised the vanilla, almond and cherrywood flavors that could’ve separated this stout from the middle of the pack.
24. Two Brothers Cherry Northwind
IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.1%
The cherries helped to bring out some of the chocolate and coffee notes, but the cherry flavor itself did not add much to this Two Bros. Northwind brew. Maybe this is the fruited stout for those who typically don’t seek out fruited stouts?
23. Lagunitas Willetized Coffee Stout
DOUGLAS PARK, CHICAGO
BARREL-AGED COFFEE STOUT – 12.6%
While last year’s ‘High West-ified’ coffee stout from Lagunitas might be no more, Willetized is a worthy fill-in. There’s no mistaking the coffee in this brew, and the chewiness is just right, thanks to the barrel-aging in some popular bourbon by-product from Kentucky. This is yet another under the radar stout from the behemoth brewery on the South Side.
22. Blue Island Underground Communique
BLUE ISLANd, IL
BARREL-AGED RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.2%
Ten months in the barrel made for a welcome, full-bodied stout from this lesser known south suburban brewer. Some expected dark fruit characteristics join with some unexpected vanilla flavors, to create one well-rounded BA offering that’s worth keeping an eye out for.
21. Old Irving Koko Krampus Cookies
OLD IRVING PARK, CHICAGO
MILK STOUT – 6.5%
It might’ve been the Girl Scout cookie, Samoa, they were aiming to emulate here, as the chocolate and coconut compliment this milk stout nicely. Couple those with the addition of some Big Shoulders Coffee, and what you’re left with is a full-bodied, chewy, desserty drinker at just 6.5%
20. Crystal Lake 2016 Boathouse Reserve
CRYSTAL LAKE, IL
RYE BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.3%
The rye variant of the yearly release from Crystal Lake is as impressive as it’s yellow-waxed bourbon barrel-aged brother. The extra year on this one has created a more subtle backbone that’s a rye lover’s dream.
19. Buckledown Barrel-Aged Significant
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 11.5%
A late addition to the lineup, this BBA canned offering from Buckledown was a more than pleasant surprise. This beer provided a rich creamy mouthfeel and just enough fudginess to balance it all out perfectly. Plus, its time in the barrel seemed to create the near-optical amount of warmth you hope for from a BA stout, without the bite.
18. Lake Effect Wine Barrel-Aged Stout
WINE BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.5%
The amount of red wine flavor Lake Effect pulls out of the barrel in this stout is pretty incredible. Balanced out with notes of chocolate and oak, it’s a beer you might be able to fool some people into thinking they’re drinking a dessert wine. Seriously.
17. Cahoots Barrel-Aged No S’more
FOREST PARK, IL
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.0%
Big notes of graham cracker, vanilla, and cinnamon make for one of the most unique beers in this line up. The name tells you exactly what you’re going to get here and it doesn’t disappoint. Even if you were hoping for more marshmallow-ness…
16. Noon Whistle Imperial Bernie
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL MILK STOUT – 12.1%
Last year’s blind tasting left Noon Whistle’s Bernie milk stout a little lost in the shuffle, finishing 46th. It was almost as if this year’s BA version was the Lombard brewery’s rallying cry. ‘Imperial Bernie’ is, simply put, a great stout. Well-rounded, full-bodied, and warming.
15. 5 Rabbit CaCao
BEDFORD PARK, IL
IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.7%
There’s so much going on this beer it’s easy to get overwhelmed just from reading the label. Brewed in homage to the Latin American staple “chocolate caliente,” the brewers add chocolate, chile, pumpkin seeds, vanilla beans…the list goes on. Somehow it all works and ends up being a lot of fun to drink.
14. Middle Brow The Milk Eyed Mender
LOGAN SQUARE, CHICAGO
IMPERIAL MILK STOUT – 10.3%
Spiced with three kinds of peppers, cacao nibs, vanilla, cinnamon and sweet orange peel, The Milk Eyed Mender is one complex milk stout. The heat from the peppers hits you on the back of the tongue but never overwhelms. The sweetness from the lactose and vanilla balance things out and allow the more interesting flavors–chocolate, earthy dark fruit and spice–to shine.
13. Pollyanna Personal Chain Letter
Imperial Stout – 10.1%
You’ll definitely taste the bourbon–and smell it on the nose–but it’s not overpowering. Hints of chocolate and coffee help to balance the flavors, leaving you with a pleasant BA stout that’s just, well… done well.
12. Revolution Cafe Deth
BARREL-AGED OATMEAL COFFEE STOUT – 14.8%
Revolution ‘s Cafe Deth is the highest ABV beer on this list, but it has a lot more going on than alcohol burn and dark roasted malts. Before you even take a sip, coffee hits you in the face, drawing you in closer. On the tongue, the coffee doesn’t overwhelm, adding notes of pepper and bitter chocolate. The creaminess from the oats in the base beer and oaky bourbon flavor from the barrel help round out the experience.
11. Cruz Blanca Rey Gordo
WEST LOOP, CHICAGO
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.0%
Big bad Rey Gordo was aged 10 months in bourbon, rum and brandy barrels. This addition of rum and brandy barrel-aging adds some unique flavor notes you wouldn’t find in your run-of-the-mill BBA stout. Alongside oak and some boozy heat, you’ll taste caramel, molasses, dark sugar and toasted marshmallow. Not bad for a brewery often associated with German- and bière de garde-inspired beers.
10. Wild Onion Drago
LAKE BARRINGTON, IL
BARREL-AGED RUSSIAN Imperial Stout – 9.5%
One sip of Drago, and you’ll immediately wonder why this Chicago stalwart doesn’t get more recognition in the local BA stout lineup. While we hate to compare any one brewery’s beer to another, our reaction was that this is a near fill-in for BCBS–dark fruited, molasses-like, and with some back-end heat. If you’ve been away from this one for a while, we suggest you revisit. If you’ve never tasted it, we suggest you do so.
9. Miskatonic Bell Witch
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 11.0%
Nearly a no-show in this year’s lineup, Bell Witch arrived at the eleventh hour, and was good enough to crack the Top 10 in the end. This rye whiskey BA stout conveyed plenty of oaky, vanilla and even leathery characteristics to make for an impressively balanced boozer, at 11%
8. Half Acre Barrel-Aged Big Hugs
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL COFFEE STOUT – 12.0%
Half Acre’s barrel program continues to impress and this year’s BA variant of local favorite Big Hugs is no different (it finished 7th last year). Dark Matter coffee proves the perfect addition to the flavorful but subtle barrel character, at least among this loaded line-up.
7. Begyle BA Imperial Pajamas 2017
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL OATMEAL STOUT – 10.0%
Another year of blind stout tasting, and another Top 10 finish for Northcenter’s brewery-under-the-tracks, Begyle. If this proves anything, its that its about time their barrel-aging program garners a little more attention. For only six months in the barrel, this stout exhibits an impressive amount of oaky, molassesy notes. Combine that with a favorable amount of vanilla and even burnt marshmallow, and you’re left with a pleasantly balanced dessert-like stout.
6. Temperance 2016 Double Rye Barrel-Aged Might Meets Right
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 11.1%
In our nationwide top 50 stout ranking last year, this beer ranked #2. It being ranked #7 this year is a testament to the quality of beer in the Chicago area. After aging in the bottle for another year, you’ll find even more balance between the booze and earthy oak of the rye barrel and the chocolate, vanilla and dark fruit notes coming from the base stout.
5. 18th Street 2016 Barrel-Aged Bitches Bank
BARREL-AGED RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 12.0%
You know you’re drinking an exceptional barrel-aged stout when it drinks like a dessert–a relaxing elixir of chocolate, sweet bourbon, vanilla, oak and roast. Bitches Bank, specifically, also incorporates cinnamon and rye grain into the mix for a little bit of added spice. There’s minimal alcohol burn. It’s smooth, and sip after sip you’ll take a satisfied deep breath, each time sinking deeper into your chair. It’s that good of a beer.
4. Alter Barrel-Aged Smash Tun
DOWNERS GROVE, IL
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 11.0%
Our bottles were a little higher carbed than expected but the barrel character here hits that “just right” spot between subtle and overpowering. It’s often tempting to grab a bottle of your favorite barrel-aged stout and throw it on the shelf for a couple years. Drink Smash Tun now.
3. Hailstorm Vlad the Second (Order of the Dragon) with Vanilla
TINLEY PARK, IL
BARREL-AGED RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 14.1%
Hailstorm’s BA ‘Vlad’ is quickly becoming a sought after Chicagoland stout, and for good reason. Despite being so high in alcohol content, this bruiser drinks exceptionally smooth, and its heat is subdued by a noticeable dosage of vanilla. We’re already excited for next year’s ‘Vlad.’
2. Pipeworks Barrel-Aged The Jones Dog
BARREL-AGED MILK STOUT – 13.0%
The Jones Dog: Big flavors and a heavenly aroma elevated this one from most of the competition. Sweet chocolate and vanilla notes perfectly balanced with bourbon to warm ya up at 13% ABV. And while it’s been at least a year since we personally sampled this beer, we were instantly reminded of the complexity this stout–a layered beer that unfolded as you sipped: from milky, to to nutty, to oaky, to pillowy chocolate and vanilla. The instant buzz around this ‘mystery beer’ had folks clamoring.
1. Goose Island Propietor’s BCBS 2017
WEST TOWN, CHICAGO
BARREL-AGED IMPERIAL STOUT – 14.0%
Another year, another astounding first place finish from BBA kings, Goose Island, with 2017’s Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. While many predicted Pipeworks’ Jones Dog (AKA Stout #30) might take the crown given its Stout Night buzz, the only beer to disappear faster was 2017’s ‘Prop’ (AKA Stout #8). Thanks to Goose Island brewer Quinn Fuechsl, the recipe of banana, cinnamon and almond leave one thinking they might’ve just drank a glass of banana bread–or at least the closest thing to it. This is, no doubt, one of the most interesting stouts you will ever sample. And at least 50 other folks judging agreed. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chicago’s Best Stout.
Stout Night photography by Ben Macri.
Reviews contributed by The Hop Review and Few Brews Beer Club.
A huge thank you to each Chicagoland brewery who contributed beer for Stout Night II. Each beer was ranked on a simplified BJCP 30 point scale and averaged by the number of ratings received. All barrel-aged beers are the latest release unless otherwise noted. Cheers!