Beer: Fernet Aged Porter Brewery: Odell Brewing Co. Style: Imperial Porter ABV: 9.8 percent
On almost any subject, you'll find a group of nerds willing to fight you to the death to defend its awesomeness. Every day across the land, Star Trek nerds put on their crazy Klingon makeup, fantasy nerds design new dungeons to explore, food nerds photograph their food in the middle of crowded restaurants, cocktail nerds create new combinations of spiritous flavors, and beer nerds write sloppily constructed brew reviews. But despite their abundance (and that one time some Canadian brewers decided to make a Star Trek beer), it's not often that nerds' interests intersect. Nerdery takes intense focus, you see. But occasionally there comes a product that can please members of multiple groups. Located at the crossroads of Beer Geek Street and Cocktail Nerd Way, Odell's Fernet Aged Porter is one of these.
Cocktail craftsmen know Fernet well -- the bitter, aromatic Italian spirit, made with spices that range from chamomile and cardamom to saffron and myrrh, is having something of a moment. The version popular among the cocktail set right now is Fernet Branca, invented in 1845 as a stomach medicine and used today to add a bold, bitter black licorice flavor to drinks. Fernet isn't a spirit to be trifled with; the flavor is assertive, almost angry. Most cocktails use only a drop or two.
This isn't the first time Odell has experimented with the bitter, medicinal spirit. In July 2012, the brewery premiered a Fernet-aged version of its popular Cutthroat Porter during a tap takeover at Flanny's. My thoughts then: The brew was interesting but too dry and bitter and too heavy on the Fernet. I pined for more malt flavor and sweetness, for as it was, the brew tasted a bit too much like toothpaste.
In this new porter, Odell has made all the right adjustments. To create it, brewers cooked up a batch of strong porter, then separated it into two halves. The first half was sent to the calm, cool confines of stainless steel; the other half was placed inside oaken barrels that once held Fernet from Colorado's Leopold Bros. Distillery, which blends bold notes of aloe and peppermint with about 20 other botanicals, including lavender, honeysuckle, ginger, dandelion, chamomile, and rose petals. The result? A brew that's like brushing your teeth with mint chocolate ice cream.
In a snifter, Fernet Aged Porter is thin yet dark, a deep ebony liquid beneath a sandy tan head composed of large, fragile bubbles that pops away rather quickly. Giving up beautiful aromatics as it does. Chocolate is noticeable foremost, in multiple forms: cocoa powder, milk chocolate squares, mint chocolate chips. Herbal mint, anise, and alcohol swirl in the background.
The flavor is much more Fernet-forward. Peppermint zings around the mouth, balancing the bitter dark chocolate notes of the base porter. Floral imprints are apparent, decorating the darker beer and liqueur with licorice and lavender designs. An oaky char is met with flavors of molasses and gingerbread. The body's a little thinner than I'd like, and the lively, fizzy carbonation is much higher than it needs to be, but the strange, pleasantly discordant sensation of cooling aloe and mint combined with the warmth of alcohol makes up for this.
I wouldn't be surprised if this porter was the same base used in Odell's decadent beer/wine hybrid, Amuste -- its rich chocolate notes and pungency are nearly the same. The funky, herbal bitterness, however, is very different. Get a bottle to settle your stomach or to give you and your cocktail nerd friends something to agree on, for once.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.