The beer: Parabola
The brewer: Firestone Walker Brewing Company
Style: Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout
ABV: 13 percent
Until last year, Parabola -- Firestone Walker's now-beloved imperial stout -- existed only on draft in Paso Robles and as a component of the brewery's occasional anniversary blends. 2011 marks the second wide release of the brew, and this year's batch of bottles hit Arizona shelves last week.
We should count ourselves lucky to see this beer at all, considering the amount of work that goes into it. The recipe for Parabola calls for a massive amount of malt -- two tons of it, twice as much as any other Firestone Walker beer -- which the brewers must constantly stir by hand to avoid scorching. It takes twice as long to brew as any other beer Firestone makes, not counting the 12 months it spends in oaken bourbon barrels before release.
But time and work, as they say, pays off. The liquid is a deep, impenetrable, inescapable black that pours thick and viscous with a small, sudsy head the color of cinnamon. Some thin spots of lace pepper the glass as the liquid recedes while you drink. Take a whiff and you'll pick up tons of toasted coconut, some vanilla, charred oak, and maybe even a little tobacco. Your next sniff might reveal espresso, high-cacao-percentage dark chocolate, or the subtle zing of spicy Hallertau hops.
A night spent pondering Parabola is a lesson in the merits of restraint. A problem rampant among barrel-aged stouts is that they often let one flavor (whiskey, usually) take the reins and overwhelm the beer. Here, individual flavors are there if you're willing to look for them, but there's also a nice synthesis -- like a rainbow, with each flavor fading softly into the other.
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And what flavors are discernible are mighty fine: first is the darker, bitter stuff like cocoa nibs and espresso powder. Sweeter notes soon emerge, reminding of vanilla beans, toasted coconut, dark plums and cherry syrup. A gentle amount of bitterness (delivered by citrusy/woody Zeus hops) keeps this sweeter stout from becoming cloying.
The mouthfeel is -- in a word -- blissful, with a velvety smoothness not unlike a milkshake. I want to make a bed and sleep in it. Bubbles massage the tongue lightly and the beer fizzes up only very slightly as it moves. The brewers must also be commended for their skill in covering up the alcohol burn. This is 13 percent alcohol -- nearly liqueur-strength -- and I don't pick up a hint of it. The drinkability of this boozy stout is downright dangerous.
Parabola is a beer that has a lot of hype behind it, but it's well-deserved hype. Those who seek it out do so rightly, and those who hoard it also do so rightly -- I can only see this one getting better with age.
Food Pairing Suggestions:
If there ever was a beer to enjoy with dessert, this is it. Dark chocolate truffles are an easy match, or you could break out the big guns and sip your snifter alongside some black forest cake. The flavors of chocolate and cherries in both cake and beer will harmonize, creating beautiful music in your mouth.