The beers of Valkyrie may come from a small town, but they're becoming a big deal among craft beer drinkers who look for products from out-of-the-way locations. Valkyrie calls Dallas home -- Dallas, Wis., that is, a small Barron County town of just 400 people. Its Big Swede appeals to those who love strong, rich malty chocolate and roasted toffee flavors, and it's on many fans' bucket lists. Brewery owner Randy Lee says that although it may not be his best seller, it is the beer that travelers from all over turn up on his doorstep looking for.
Style: Big Swede is a Scandinavian take on the bold Russian Imperial Stout, a style known for its rich maltiness and strength. The style emerged in the 18th century as an export from England to the Baltic states and the Russian Empire. The Swedish version is similar, but with more emphasis on the sweetness of malts. Imperial stouts can be quite intense, often characterized by a lingering malty finish and warmth from 7% to 12% ABV.
Background: Big Swede has helped put Valkyrie on the map. When it was first introduced in 1997, Big Swede taught an early generation of Wisconsin craft beer enthusiasts what big and bold beers could be like. "Back 17-18 years ago, we first brewed it on a lark because we figured there weren't that many dark beer drinkers up here at the time," says Lee. The beer needs a long fermentation and cellaring period; Lee initially brewed it in late summer so it would be ready as a winter seasonal. The first batch was just three barrels, and Lee thought that if it didn't sell, it would "be good to lay down in the kegs...because it'll just get better. Well, we sold it out in three months." It's now a year-round release.
Big Swede isn't Valkyrie's best seller; that's War Hammer. But it has attracted a cult-like following. It was mentioned in the book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die (Universe, 2010). Lee says the beer hasn't changed since he first made it nearly two decades ago. Its recipe features only four different malts -- just lots of each. They contribute rich flavors of chocolate, caramel, molasses and dark fruits. All that malt also makes it a strong beer, at 8% ABV. A touch of Northern Brewer hops offers some balance, but this beer remains all about the malt.
Valkyrie recently stepped up distribution of its beers into the Madison market. The brewery originally opened in 1996 as Viking Brewing. It changed its name in 2012 to Valkyrie.
Big Swede finishes at 8% ABV. It sells in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles for $10. It's also available in Madison in 22-ounce bombers. They sell for $5 in select liquor stores.
- Aroma: Huge malty nose with hints of roast and licorice.
- Appearance: Dark black color, with a thick rocky brown head.
- Texture: Full-bodied.
- Taste: Smooth and malty with lots of semi-sweet roasted chocolate flavor.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Malty, warm, a light fruity finish. Yet remains big and thick throughout.
Glassware: Use a snifter to encourage sipping and allow Big Swede to slowly warm to room temperature, which brings out more of the softer and sweeter malt flavors.
Pairs well with: The Russian Imperial Stout goes well with robust and flavorful meaty entrees. My go-to cheese for a beer this rich in chocolate and roasted malt is Satori Reserve Merlot Bellavitano
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Consensus: 87 (very good) at BeerAdvocate, and 97/68 (overall/style) at RateBeer.
The Verdict: Big Swede is indeed a big and flavorful brew. This is one that needs to be sipped. There's lots of maltiness, which lends it a deep, complex sweetness with hints of molasses and warm spice. Enjoy it at cellar temperatures or in the high 40s at the coldest (room temperature is actually best), and you'll discover so many more of the smooth, rich chocolate tones, alongside hints of dark fruit. Plus, this beer is a great one to age. For this review I went looking through my own cellar stash and found a 10-year-old bottle that was amazingly smooth with rich roasted chocolate tones. It had mellowed well, yet remained robust and malty. I sipped it slowly next to the current vintage of Big Swede. I have one remaining bottle, which I'll save for a future Viking holiday.