Brew Review

Nectar Ales' Black Xantus

Beer: Black Xantus
Brewery: Nectar Ales
Style: American Imperial Stout
ABV: 13 percent

The birdwatcher enters the bar, cautious yet optimistic -- he's heard the Black Xantus has been spotted nearby. Usually expert at landing the scarcest finds, the birdwatcher has until now been frustrated in his search for this particular animal. Suddenly, he catches sight of the tiny fowl as it alights in a snifter on a tabletop. The birdwatcher approaches slowly -- he's spent so long searching for this rarity -- and lifts the glass to his lips carefully, gently. Locating this bird was a task, but success is sweet, and tastes like coffee stout.

Extended birding metaphor aside, Black Xantus the beer was until recently as difficult to find in this state as the rare hummingbird for which it's named. Because so much of the beer was used in Firestone 14 (a yearly anniversary brew that's composed of a blend of barrel-aged ales), the total number of bottles that made it to Arizona in 2010 was exactly zero. It's worth seeking out -- the beer won gold at the World Beer Championship in 2009.

It's brewed by Nectar Ales, a storied California brewery that Firestone Walker acquired in 2003 and now uses as a testing ground of sorts for all-natural ales and unusual ingredients. In Black Xantus, those ingredients include free trade coffee from local roaster Jobella, which is ground up, poured into cheesecloth and left to steep in the wort. The coffee-infused brew is then aged in bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill distillery.

Nectar Ales brewer Matt Brynildson likes to say this beer's color is "Midnight black under a moonless sky," which is apt. Poured into a snifter, it seems to absorb light. The head, half an inch tall, is dense and khaki-colored, but disintegrates after a short while, leaving nothing between me and my quarry.

Aromas of the grocery store coffee aisle greet the nose as the beer approaches. I pick up deeply roasted coffee beans, oats, sweet bourbon and tangy dark chocolate -- a mighty fine mix.

The flavor echoes the aroma, but loses some volume. Cold press coffee and burnt bread lend a bitter snap akin to chewing on a coffee bean before oak and sweetly boozy bourbon emerge mid-palate. Allowing the beer to warm smooths it out substantially, boosting the notes of dark chocolate, sweet vanilla and oats that step in at the swallow to back up the sharp espresso.

A brewery representative told me the ABV was actually boosted from 11 to 13 percent this year, at which point I slapped him for lying to me. With almost no hint of booze to be found, this big stout drinks like half its alcohol content. The body is just a touch thin -- I would've liked a little more heft.

Though Black Xantus did actually to migrate to Arizona this year, this bird will still be fairly hard to find. Catch it on tap if you can -- there's a substantial difference between bottled and kegged versions, with the stuff on draft coming out ahead.

Food Pairing Suggestions:
There exist several recipes for coffee-rubbed pork tenderloin (my favorite uses a rub consisting of ground coffee, brown sugar, ancho chili powder, salt and allspice), and any one of them will work beautifully to augment Black Xantus' heavy coffee flavor while adding the smoky, savory notes the beer lacks. But this is really a dessert beer, and the only dessert to try with an imperial java stout is tiramisu. Coffee and coffee, cocoa and cocoa -- the flavors of dish and beer synchronize like birdsong.

Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, a recognized expert on beer.

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