Beer: 16th Anniversary Ale Brewery: Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Style: American Strong Ale ABV: 13 percent
Voltron knew it best: Giant robotic lions are all well and fine on their own, but combine them into one super-robot and no foe in the universe can defeat you.
So it is with beer. Firestone Walker, with its massive barrel-aging program, has a virtual pride of giant robot lion-beers picking up flavors of liquor and oak. To celebrate 16 years in business, the brewery held an event inviting brewers, winemakers and beer experts to taste and blend these beasts into a more powerful whole. The final grand cru, Firestone Walker 16, is composed of eight different beers from 226 oaken barrels.
The percentages fell out like this:
- 23 percent Velvet Merkin, an awesomely-named bourbon-aged oatmeal stout - 22.5 percent Stickee Monkee, a nearly 13-percent ABV English barleywine aged in bourbon and brandy barrels - 20.3 percent Double Double Barrel Ale, an imperial English pale ale aged in retired barrels from the Firestone Union - 10.8 percent Parabola, a bourbon-aged Russian imperial stout - 8.1 percent PNC, a tequila-aged buckwheat stout brewed in collaboration with Publican National Congress - 5.4 percent bourbon- and brandy-aged Helldorado, a blonde Barleywine - 5.4 percent bourbon- and brandy-aged Bravo, an imperial brown ale, and - 4.5 percent Wookey Jack, a dank and hoppy black IPA
With all that stuff in there, you might expect the flavors and aromas to get a little muddled. But here's what you can really smell: the tequila. No matter what other ingredients are included, nothing can quite mask the pungent potency of tequila. The agave liquor adds its musk to an incredible melange of cocoa, dark cherry, toasted coconut, vanilla bean and smoke. Think eating a chocolate-covered cherry in a smoky bar in Mexico.
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And here's what you can really taste: nothing. And by nothing, I mean everything. The beers above all contribute individual elements -- Velvet Merkin's oats are noticeable; Double DBA has lent its distinct toffee character -- but each is indistinguishable from the next. Fruity brandy gives way to smoky dark chocolate which steps aside for buckwheat, vanilla and tequila before an aged-citrus finish. It's an ocean of flavor, constantly shifting and revealing new depths with each pass. The body is perfect -- velvety yet not too heavy. Carbonation gently tingles the tongue, and alcohol, which should be hard to get away from, is instead hard to find at all.
This Firestone Anniversary is the best since 13, which is saying something -- I loved that beer more than most parents love their babies. Bottles aren't cheap -- extended aging in barrels takes up costly time and space, so prices jumped this year to more than $25 at some stores. And that's if you can even find them -- nearly every beer purveyor sold out of the boxed bombers within a few days. But many bars are set to tap kegs at special events Thanksgiving weekend, so try to get your fill on draft before it's gone.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.