Beer: Victory at Sea Brewery: Ballast Point Brewing Co. Style: Imperial Porter ABV: 10 percent
Beers that are available year-round are all well and fine, but they're not what I look for when perusing the shelves at my local bottle shop. I want the limited-release stuff -- the beers brewers only break out once in a while because the supply of fermenters and extra ingredients necessary to make the brew demand it. For San Diego's Ballast Point Brewing Co., the Yellowtail Pale Ale and Sculpin IPA pay the bills. But it's Victory at Sea, an Imperial porter made with vanilla beans and cold-press coffee, that draws in the beer geeks like a lighthouse in the night.
Victory at Sea's story begins in 1992, when a homebrewer named Jack White, recognizing the dearth of good supply shops nearby with which to augment his hobby, opened Home Brew Mart near Mission Beach in San Diego. Another homebrewer, Yuseff Cherney, soon joined him, and together the two moved the brews they were making in their back yards to the back of the shop. In 1996, Ballast Point was born.
It wasn't until 2007, however, that Victory at Sea premiered. Visitors to Home Brew Mart went crazy for it, so White and Cherney decided to bottle the brew in 2009. Is the acclaim the brew continued to gain over the following years due to its rich flavor, or is it because it has perhaps the most epic label art of any brew out there? Whatever it was, the skeletal captain and his dead parrot sail on in popularity. It got so big that on Dec. 23, 2012, the beer had its own holiday with a dozen different flavor variations. But we'll get to that in a minute
First, the original recipe beer. Victory at Sea looks like breakfast -- an abundantly black liquid fills the glass while a powerful-looking head the color of brown sugar and the consistency of pancake batter slowly retreats to a thin but stubborn blanket. Sweet, sticky spatters of lace pepper the glass as it goes.
Plant your nose above the rim and the morning meal continues. Aromas of cappuccino gelato and medium-roast coffee with milk meld with subtle background vanilla notes as well as bits of sourdough and brown sugar.
In the flavor, Victory at Sea switches to dessert. An excellent balance of bitter and sweet, the brew tastes almost like tiramisu. Bitter medium-roast coffee flavors play at the sides of the tongue while a sweet vanilla and Irish cream character build at the front. Toast and molasses make appearances as well, and alcohol heat rolls down the throat, noticeable but not overpowering. As the drink warms, vanilla becomes more pronounced, lending a sweet finish to counteract the bitterness of the coffee beans.
On December 23, Ballast Point celebrated Victory at Sea by hosting the first annual Victory at Sea Day. They brewed a dozen variations of their popular porter for the event, adding unique adjuncts to the beer that play off its base ingredients:
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- Pumpkin Pie Victory At Sea - Gingerbread Victory At Sea - Peppermint Victory At Sea - Oak-aged Victory At Sea - Maple Bourbon Victory At Sea - Chocolate Ghost Pepper Victory At Sea - Cask-conditioned Toasted Coconut Victory At Sea - Cask-conditioned Double Vanilla Bean Victory At Sea - Peanut & Chocolate Victory At Sea - Mole Victory At Sea - Ballast Point Three Sheets Rum Barrel-aged Victory At Sea - Victory At Cereal
This last variant -- Victory at Sea made with lactose and Cap'n Crunch -- is the only one I was able to try. Amid a body soft and silky as a down comforter rolled flavors of sweet, bready Cap'n Crunch, whole milk, coffee, toast, cocoa and french vanilla. It tasted like the best breakfast ever -- and I didn't even cut the roof of my mouth.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.