Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery, Tadcaster
The hazard of going beer shopping on a cold windy day is that it tempts me to binge on the dark and heavy things, especially stouts. I’m also a sucker for the fancy, and what’s fancier than an imported stout with all kinds of seals and medallions on the label, and curlicues and foil? Upon closer inspection, one of those tiny medallions is a gold medal from the International Brewer’s Exhibition in ’96. 1896. So sure, I’ll fight off the SAD with a good dark beer, why not. Plus, the tall skinny bottle looks smaller than it is- I assumed this was one of those 11.2 ounce imports, but it’s a good old-fashioned 12, and more is almost always better.
The Brewer’s Pitch:
Sam Smith is the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, founded way back in 1758. Old Smith keeps it succinct in the description. Imperial stouts were born when a modification was needed to allow stout to survive old-fashioned shipping methods through the frozen Hoth-scape that was Imperial Russia. The nobility got ahold of it and whango, a style was born. This isn’t a weird take on the style or some brewer’s reimagining, it’s the straight dope: Deep dark brown, roast barley, malty, hoppy, boozy. It’s even vegan, if that’s what floats your boat and blows your skirt up. They do highlight the fact that it’s fermented in “stone Yorkshire squares,” which some deep digging tells me is a traditional system of brewing (like, 200+ years old traditional) that uses an enormous 2-story brewing system with double chambers and yeast rising to the top and it’s all very weird and old.
Smith’s Stout pours DARK brown, not a glimmer of light passing through, and looks thicker than motor oil. It carries a chocolatey brown head that, while thick and dense, diminishes fairly quickly. The aroma is subtle, a deep smoky tang and hints of dark chocolate and grain. The beer is full-bodied and quite smooth and heavy, rolling slowly over your tongue and coating it in deep dark bitterness. The bitterness is sharp and tangy, surprisingly so for such a heavy beer- it’s got a real edge to it that I normally see only in lighter beers. The deeper, heavier roast taste doesn’t come in until the back half, when it plays peekaboo around the edges of the more heavily prevalent tang. That bitterness develops from hoppy at the front end to a nearly sooty, charcoal flavor from the heavy roast by the end.
I desperately wanted to love this beer, but it’s just not happening. The malt flavor doesn’t hold up well under the stronger taste, and that’s just too burnt. I’d hope that the heavy roasting would have brought out more grains but no, it was smoke and char that were at the forefront. With a stronger grain profile or less bitterness this could have been a true classic. As it stands, it’s definitely not BAD, just disappointing. If you like stouts give it a try, as an example of the origins of the style it’s worth at least that much. Still, sometimes the classics are enduring greats, and sometimes they just can show you how far new developments have brought us.
The Bottom Line:
“Tadcaster” may be the funniest place name I’ve ever heard, so there’s that at least.