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 Nick Costa.
At the end of last year, as the chilly weather was rolling over Chicago, we took on the task of gathering stouts from near and far to build out a robust lineup, as impressive a list as we could gather. So, we started hoarding them, like squirrels storing nuts for the winter. As the bounty piled up, we quickly realized there was no way we were going to tackle this endeavor ourselves–rather, we’d need to call in the cavalry. So, we gathered around 20 of our friends in the beer industry to help us conduct a blind tasting, for our first ever Style Review: Stouts.
The result: an even 50 stouts, from sweet milk stouts to gigantic bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperials. Along with our peers, we blind tasted and scored based on aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and overall impression using the BJCP Guidelines. The scores were then tallied, averaged and arranged to give you our highly non-scientific rankings of 50 stouts we could get our hands on (*as a qualification for inclusion, all stouts were required to be packaged offerings, available for public purchase and could be any variation on a stout–no draft-only or growler fills).
It’d be tough to say that there were really any bad beers in the field–it was practically a matter of splitting hairs. But, some did rise above the rest. The blind factor, as well as having 20 different people–with 20 different palates and preferences–led to some surprising results. Unique ingredients caught folks’ attention, the big imperial stouts were preferred to their lower-ABV brethren, and (maybe not-so) surprisingly, Chicago breweries dominated the top of the list.
So here you have it, 50 stouts scored and ranked. Let the grand debate begin…
50. Emperical Singularity
OATMEAL STOUT – 5.0%
A straight forward oatmeal stout with a rich, dry mouthfeel and flavors of roasted barley, and coffee grounds. But its burnt toasty flavor was a bit of a miss.
49. Liberty Street Majesty
BA IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.2%
For having aged a couple years, there was still a decent amount of heat on the nose, as well as vanilla and a very faint fruit tartness. Its mouthfeel was medium, if not on the thin side and had flavors of chocolate, sweet dark malts, and charred oak.
48. Rheinegeist Ink
AMERICAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.0%
Here was an imperial stout as black as night with aromas of espresso and robust malt. On the tongue, a moderate bitterness is present that fades into chocolate, coffee, raisin and a touch of alcohol heat for a pleasant dry finish.
47. Urban Chestnut Cherry Thrale’s
ST. LOUIS, MO
Russian Imperial STout W/CHERRIES – 9.0%
Dark cherries and chocolate dominate this rich, but not-too-sweet, imperial stout. There was a nice high roast characteristic and a hint of smoke to break up this viscous dessert beer.
46. Noon Whistle Bernie
MILK STOUT – 5.0%
Bernie features moderate sweetness, yet by no means cloyingly so. This milk style played up the chocolate and cocoa powder to make for any easy drinking stout.
45. Guinness Antwerpen
Foreign/Export Stout – 8.0%
There’s a slightness of buttery diacetyl in this beer that would usually be considered a defect, though its clearly intentional here. If you can get past that, the roasty caramel flavors oughta draw you in, for this non-traditional take on the classic ‘black stuff.’
44. Stone Xocoveza
SPICED Milk Stout – 8.1%
Stone brought out a bevy of layers for this spiced milk stout, with additions of coffee, cocoa, peppers, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Consider this their take on a Mexican hot chocolate.
43. Arcade Mega Milk II
OATMEAL STOUT – 10.0%
Arcade’s big oatmeal stout is spiked with cocoa, molasses and aleppo peppers. There was a lactose sweetness that helped to balance the heat from the peppers. Unfortunately, this is the last you’ll be seeing of Arcade, after closing up shop late 2016.
42. 3 Sheeps Cashmere Hammer
NITRO RYE STOUT – 6.5%
Big additions of rye add a nice earthiness is eveident, that was not present in the rest of the stouts we tasted. It was balanced by strong chocolate notes and smoothed out with that pillowy nitrogen in the pour.
41. Flat 12 Pinko!
Russian Imperial Stout – 10.5%
This big dense RIS is the most uniquely packaged of the bunch. Stubby 8oz cans made for a perfect portion, for otherwise ‘big beers’ that might have you forcefully sharing with a friend, or worse, pouring a remainder down the drain.
40. Great Lakes Ohio City
OATMEAL STOUT – 5.4%
Like most of the stouts on the list, chocolate, coffee, and roasted malt are present in the nose and on the tongue. The oats are handled beautifully though, giving a nice pillowy mouthfeel that make this one easy to throw down.
39. Central State Gute Nacht
FARMHOUSE Stout – 8.0%
Brewing a stout didn’t stop Central State from spiking the black brew with 100% Brettanomyces. The Brett brings in tangy, but light, fruit notes that balance out noticeable roast malts and mild earthy bitterness.
38. Founders Lizard of Koz
GRAND RAPIDS, MI
BA Stout w/blueberries – 10.5%
The latest in Founders’ Backstage Series, Koz is a big barrel-aged stout packed with chocolate, vanilla, and fresh Michigan blueberries. This is definitely a dessert beer, but tiptoed with being a bit too sweet.
37. Ballast Point Cinnamon Raisin Commodore
SAN DIEGO, CA
American Stout w/raisin – 6.5%
This beer is cinnamon raisin bread in liquid form. Dark roast and biscuit are balanced by the sweetness of the dried fruit, plus a hint of spice from the cinnamon.
36. Prairie Artisan Ales Christmas BOMB!
IMPERIAL STOUT w/spices – 11.5%
Full disclosure, BOMB! is one of our favorite beers, but unfortunately the Christmas varietal just didn’t leave the same impression. All your favorite holiday baking spices are there, as well as a strange hint–whether intentional or not–of…mistletoe?
35. Yard’s Love Stout
ENGLISH STOUT – 5.5%
With so many big and bold flavors in the field it was tough for the ‘little’ guys to stand out. But this classic sweet English stout held its own with roasty coffee and chocolate, and a creamy finish for a rich well rounded offering.
34. Short’s Cup A Joe
CREAM Stout W/COFFEE – 8.0%
Using coffee through all stages of the brewing process, Cup A Joe is a cup of dark roast with a heavy does of half and half–perfect morning, noon, and night.
33. Burnt City Freight Handler
MILK STOUT – 5.0%
Lincoln Park’s Chicago-fire-themed brewers made a full-bodied milk stout with smooth chocolatey notes. A mild bitterness kept it from being too sweet, and the lactose sugar gives it a rich creamy finish. It all adds up to an approachable stout in a convenient can.
32. Two Brothers Northwind
RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.1%
The Warrenville-Aurora staple created an RIS with lots of chocolate and a slight finish of dark cherry and lingering bitterness. It drinks well below it’s 9.1% ABV with a thinner body, resulting in a pretty easy drinking Russian Imperial.
31. Mother’s Rated R
Imperial Stout W/COFFEE – 11.8%
Here, a big complex imperial stout showcases cocoa, coffee, and vanilla bean additions. It drinks lighter than expected thanks to wheat in the grain bill and finishes fairly dry, making you go back for more.
30. Dark Horse Tres Blueberry Stout
American Stout W/BLUEBERRIES – 7.5%
There were three stouts featuring blueberries in our lineup, and Tres handled it the best. A deft use of the fruit balances big chocolate and roast characteristics creating a pleasing drinking experience.
29. Upland Teddy Bear Kisses
Russian Imperial Stout W/CACAO – 10.0%
A long aging on cocoa nibs creates a rich dark chocolate flavor that helps round out the big aggressive roast and a surprisingly high bitterness. This beer is delicious, and that label is terrifying.
28. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
Russian Imperial Stout – 10.0%
Despite its name, this beer contains no actual chocolate, unlike so many other beers on this list. But, Brooklyn achieves a very prominent chocolate aroma and flavor with a masterfully blended grain bill. High roast and bitterness pairs perfectly with your chocolate dessert.
27. Pipeworks Muddy Monk
Stout W/NUTS & SPICES – 9.0%
There is a lot going on in ‘Monk.’ The label reads like a cookie recipe: toasted coconut, almonds, cocoa nibs, raisins, and blueberries. Yet, they all come together quite harmoniously for a beer worth showing off.
26. Ommegang Shadow Brewer
Imperial Stout – 9.7%
Brewed for the third shift, Shadow Brewer comes at you with big malts, chocolate, and coffee notes that give way to dark fruits and enough bitterness to keep it together. A punch of oats give it a rich creamy finish that stays with you.
25. Off Color Dino S’mores
Imperial Stout W/MARSHMALLOW – 10.5%
The festival darling, Dino S’mores only seems to grow in popularity. A highly respectable stout in its own right, it’s brewed with graham flour, marshmallow fluff, cocoa nibs, and vanilla beans. It is definitely a s’mores beer, but without being too gimmicky. Okay, it’s gimmicky.
24. Ska Molé Stout
Stout W/SPICES – 5.8%
Inspired by the Mexican cuisine staple, Molé piles on deep layers of complexity. Peppers are present through the nose and tasting, providing a pleasing heat–as well as earthiness. It finishes with hints of Mexican chocolate, cinnamon, and cola.
23. Tallgrass Big Ricc
RUSSIAN Imperial Stout W/COFFEE – 10.5%
Big and bold, Big Ricc is brewed with 200 pounds of coffee in every batch. The roasted beans hit you in the face, then give way to more subtle notes of chocolate and dark fruits. ‘Ricc’ is full-bodied and meant to be sipped, which is a little misleading coming from its bright playful can.
22. Great Divide Oatmeal Yeti
Imperial OATMEAL Stout – 9.5%
This imperial stout has a huge roasty malt backbone, but thanks to the addition of the rolled oats, it softens up nicely and gives it a velvety mouthfeel. A restrained addition of raisins gives a subtle fruit and tannin characteristic that’s all around quite nice.
21. Evil Twin Yin
Imperial TAIJI Stout – 10.0%
Yin’s a big imperial stout with strong notes of coffee and bitter dark chocolate. This one starts fairly sweet and finishes much drier than expected, likely due to the significant hop backbone for the style. Also, it’s great mixed with Evil Twin’s Yang, to make a Black & Tan.
20. Bell’s Java Stout
American Stout W/COFFEE – 7.5%
Freshly ground coffee, hints of vanilla, and cocoa hit your nose as soon as you pour this stout into your glass. There are beers that are brewed with coffee and then there are coffee beers–Java is definitely the latter and will satisfy coffee and non-coffee drinkers alike.
19. Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
Oatmeal Stout – 5.0%
We were slightly shocked to see this British staple score as high as it did, but there’s a reason Sam Smith has been around as long as it has. This silky oatmeal stout has aroma and flavors of chocolate, light vanilla, and toasted cereal grains to compliment a bittersweet finish.
18. Wiseacre Gotta Get Up to Get Down
MILK STOUT W/COFFEE – 5.0%
‘Gotta Get Up’ is exactly what you’d expect from a milk stout—moderate sweetness from the addition of lactose sugar and malt roastiness, balanced out nicely by just a hint of dark chocolate bitterness. At only 5.0%, this is still a decadent milk stout.
17. Alaskan Brewing Perseverance
RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 9.0%
It may surprise some that one of the country’s oldest craft breweries is in Juneau, Alaska. But Alaskan Brewing knows what they are doing, and Perseverance is no exception. This RIS is brewed with native Alaskan ingredients–birch syrup and wildflower honey–to add another layer of complexity.
16. Central Waters Space Ghost
Imperial Stout W/CHILI PEPPERS – 12.0%
Brewed with some of the hottest peppers on the planet, we expected this beer to be nearly unpalatable. The heat is definitely there, but it is perfectly balanced with roasted malt, chocolate, and coffee flavors.
15. Coronado Stupid Stout
IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.0%
Sometimes less is more. Stupid Stout achieves great complexity and a balance of dark roast and caramel notes, without the additions of cocoa nibs, coffee beans, or chilies, like many others in the lienup. Keep it simple, stupid.
14. Schlafly Bourbon BA Imperial Stout
ST. LOUIS, MO
BA IMPERIAL STOUT – 10.5%
The bottle at our tasting was from 2015, so it benefitted from hibernating for a year. The heat clearly dropped out and left oak, vanilla, and smoke from the barrel–complimented by bitterness from a heavy dose of hops.
13. AleSmith Speedway Stout
SAN DIEGO, CA
AMERICAN Imperial Stout – 12.0%
While globally respected, Speedway Stout often seems to be overlooked here in Chicago. But don’t sleep on this one. Speedway is a well-rounded stout that hits all the right notes of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and bitter roast in perfect harmony.
12. Rogue Ales Rolling Thunder
Ba Imperial Stout – 11.8%
Brewed with ingredients from Rogue Farms, aged in barrels hand-made at Rogue’s cooperage that housed whiskey from Rogue’s distillery, this may be the only barrel-aged beer around that is completely self contained. Rolling Thunder is big’n boozy, and barrel characteristics are front and center.
11. Surly Darkness
Russian Imperial Stout – 10.3%
Darkness is a Midwest favorite. 2016’s edition was a super complex beer with a big roast character, hints of dark cherries, dark chocolate, booziness, and more than a little hoppiness than you’d expect from a Russian Imperial Stout.
10. Begyle BA Imperial Pajamas 2016
Ba Imperial Stout –
Begyle’s BA version of Imperial Pajamas pours a viscous black reminiscent of some of the best barrel-aged stouts out there. A significant oak and bourbon character make this one of a handful that only gets better with age. Hats off, Northcenter.
9. Against the Grain 35K
Milk Stout – 7.7%
The addition of lactose really gives this one a sweet finish. Thought typical of any milk stout, that sweetness is complemented nicely by a significant bitter backbone and slight vanilla twinge. A decidedly drinkable 7% stout.
8. Maplewood Mind FK
BA Russian IMPERIAL STOUT – 11.0%
Chicago’s North Side brewery-distillery might have made a name for themselves with their juicy pale ales, but their impressive BA offerings should come as no surprise. This black tea-infused stout was about as impressively balanced as any you’ll taste, with hints of coconut and an approachable bourbon character.
7. Half Acre Vanilla Big Hugs
IMPERIAL STOUT W/COFFEE & VANILLA – 10.0%
The base of this beer is, of course, ‘regular’ Big Hugs—the Dark Matter coffee-infused imperial stout from Chicago’s hop masters. But when it comes to their stout, this has it all: the coffee roastiness you’d expect with just a hint of vanilla to add to the equation.
6. Lagunitas High West-ified
BA IMPERIAL STOUT W/COFFEE – 12.2%
A huge coffee and bourbon aroma leads you to believe you’re about to drink a big beer. And this one doesn’t disappoint, as a huge whiskey front is followed by an intense coffee finish. You get exactly what you’d hope from this one, one of Lagunitas’ best.
5. New Holland BA Dragon’s Milk Reserve with Toasted Chilies
BA IMPERIAL STOUT W/CHILIES – 11.0%
This Dragon’s Milk Reserve–aged with toasted chilies–gives you more of a complex earthiness, than it does heat or spice. The peppers compliment the chewy imperial stout’s notes of toffee and molasses.
4. Hop Butcher/DryHop Milkstachio
Milk STOUT W/PISTACHIO – 6.0%
Reminiscent of the its popular green ice cream cousin, this is a sweet milk stout with a smooth nuttiness from the pistachio, and a milk sugar sweetness–not to mention plenty of chocolate to spare. Highly regarded as one of the best collabs in the US.
3. 18th Street Vanilla Hunter
MILK STOUT W/VANILLA – 8.5%
This version of Hunter is full, creamy and smooth. Vanilla runs through the aroma and on the tongue and is the perfect yin to the stout’s chocolatey yang. The just slight bitter finish allows you to go back for more.
2. Temperance Double Rye BA Might Meets Right
BA IMPERIAL STOUT – 11.1%
Aged in rye barrels from High West distillery, MMR brings the booze. The spicy earthiness and oak from the barrel plays nicely with cherries, figs, cola, and vanilla from the base beer creating one tasty brew. Get it while ya can…
1. Goose Island Bourbon County Rare
BA AMERICAN IMPERIAL STOUT – 14.5%
Drumroll… Goose Island’s Rare has had its fair share of fans, and possibly as many critics over the last year. But we’re not here to discuss hype or business practices. Simply put, this beer is legit, and, has consistently stood a step above. On the nose, there’s a smooth bourbon note with vanilla, oak, smokiness, and leather. The bourbon really shines through in the taste. But overall, it’s incredibly smooth, adding in flavors of fudge and maple syrup. It’s always hard to justify $60 for a bottle of beer–but damn, if there was one to splurge for, it may just be Rare.
Thank you to all of the breweries who submitted beers for the Stout Review.
*As a qualification for inclusion, all stouts were required to be packaged offerings, available for public purchase and could be any variation on a stout–no draft-only or growler fills.