Beer: Samuel Adams Thirteenth Hour Brewery: Boston Brewing Co. Style: Belgian-style stout ABV: 9 percent
I like to think I'm pretty advanced, from an evolutionary standpoint. I went to college; I can string sentences together fairly well; my thumbs are opposable. But when it comes to beer-buying, I am a simple creature. A cool bottle will win my purchase almost every time.
So it was with the Sam Adams Barrel Room beers. The beautiful vessels, designed to look like the wooden barrels in which these limited brews were aged, came onto the scene in 2011 but were only available for purchase in Boston. When they arrived on Arizona shelves this month, I said, "Ooooooh!" and snatched them up.
Four beers make up the Barrel Room Collection: New World Tripel, Stony Brook Red, American Kriek and Thirteenth Hour. All of these take inspiration from the Belgian practices of blending and aging beers for wild and flavorful results, but Thirteenth Hour is unique in that it implants Belgian flavors into a very English creation: stout.
The thirteenth hour is also known as the witching hour -- the time of day when witches, demons and ghosts appear and black magic is most effective. The name refers not only to the dark juju created by combining the roasted flavors of a stout with the spicy character of a sour Belgian ale, but also to the 13 ingredients used to brew the beer. It combines seven different malts (Samuel Adams two-row pale malt blend, Caramel 60, Munich 10, Special B, and Carafa III, for those who care about such things), Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops, two different brewing sugars, Kosmic Mother Funk (which we'll discuss in a minute), Belgian yeast and champagne yeast for bottle conditioning.
The result? A brew that's as deathly black as the midnight hour to which it refers. In a tulip, the obsidian brew is topped with a super-frothy layer of cocoa-colored bubbles that look as thick and inviting as pancake batter. The stout-like appearance is belied by the nose, however. Dip the nostrils close and you'll get a dose of Belgian dark fruits: raisins, figs, dates. Vanilla, black pepper and a hint of acidity swirl in the rich background.
Now, back to the Kosmic Mother Funk. All Barrel Room Collection beers contain this ale that's fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria, then aged in oak tuns for over a year. The KMF is blended into the Barrel Room beers in varying amounts, lending them new layers of funky flavor. In Thirteenth Hour, this wild ale contributes herbal spice and a mild tanginess that grabs the back of the tongue.
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More impactful on Thirteenth Hour's flavor is the extended barrel-aging. The "Barrel Room" name isn't arbitrary -- each beer in the collection was aged in special oak barrels originally used to make brandy. The containers traveled far to get to New England: the oak, which originated in Eastern Europe, was used for brandy-making in Italy. Coopers in Portugal took the barrels apart, then flew to Boston to reassemble them by hand. From these, Thirteenth Hour gets heaping helpings of rich, sweet red grapes and oak to blend with the underlying stout flavors of smoky peat, chocolate, vanilla and coffee. The brandy almost makes the brew seem more like a Belgian strong dark ale than a stout, in fact.
The Belgian stout is a weird style on its own, and Thirteenth Hour is a fine example of how these flavors play off one another. Pick one up if you want an interesting taste experience -- or if you're a Neanderthal like me and just want a pretty bottle to look at.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.