Sprecher Brewing Company
The first cruel taste of winter seems to be arriving with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And in cold, wet and snowy weather, rich and strong beers are well suited to take the chill away, or at least fend it off for awhile.
Big imperial stouts and bold bourbon barrel-aged brews are often at their best in the colder months of the year, when hands and feet are numb from shoveling and even a little warmth is welcome. With the recent dramatic shift in weather, the timing couldn't be any better for Sprecher Brewing with the release of its new and improved Czar Brew.
It's a Russian imperial stout that gets aged for two years in oak bourbon barrels. This beer oozes with bourbon-sweetness and alcoholic heat, and makes the north winds of a polar vortex seem just a little less brutal.
What is it? Czar Brew Russian Imperial Stout Aged in Oak Bourbon Barrels from Sprecher Brewing Company of Glendale, Wisconsin.
Style: The Russian imperial stout is known for rich maltiness, roasted bitterness and strength. The style originated in the 18th century as an export from England to the Baltic states and the Russian Empire. These stouts can be quite intense, with varying amounts of roasted qualities and a range of sweet to bitter flavors. They're most often characterized by a lingering malty finish that is warm, with port-like qualities. This is a strong style of beer at 7-12% ABV. Adding to all the expected robust maltiness in Sprecher Czar Brew is an assertive bourbon sweetness from extended barrel-aging.
Background: Sprecher started brewing a Russian imperial stout in 1994, and Czar Brew is a barrel-aged version that was first made in 2006 and released in 2007. The 2014 vintage offers a serious escalation in strength and bourbon character. While its recipe really hasn't changed over the years, this latest release reflects a much longer aging time in the barrel.
Brewmaster Craig Burge holds the beer in bourbon barrels for over two years before bottling. That means the 2014 Czar Brew was brewed in fall 2012. The brewery intends to make a statement with the extended barrel aging.
"We wanted to come up with an offering that was big, complex and fit for a czar," says Burge. "Around here, this is known as 'seat belt beer' because you should buckle up and enjoy the flavor ride."
The aging was conducted in white oak barrels previously used by bourbon makers in Kentucky. "Those barrels had nine years of bourbon in them before they got to our brewery," says Anne Sprecher, who is marketing director for the brewery. This extended time in the barrel produces such distinctive bourbon and malt character, she explains, that from now on the beer will be aged for a minimum of two years.
"It just changes the flavor so much -- they are so much more complex than previous versions that were aged less in oak barrels," notes Sprecher.
The brewery's recipe for this Russian imperial stout includes six different types of malts and a large amount of them. There’s a mild hoppy background from four types of hops: Cascade, Chinook, Mt. Hood and Tettnanger. It's those malts, though, that really lend this beer its rich roasted, chocolate, caramel, and coffee tones that mingle amidst the bourbon. And it's all of these malts that give this beer a strength to respect at 11.9% ABV.
Even though it's already been aged for two years before release Czar Brew should cellar very nicely for several years. "Three years from now," quips Sprecher, "I'm betting it's going to be pretty awesome."
Czar Brew isn't the only extended-aged bourbon-barrel beer that Sprecher has out on shelves right now. The brewery also just released a Scotch ale named Commando that has likewise spent two years in the barrel. Arriving in tandem, the pair are now limited-release fall seasonals.
Anne Sprecher says both beers, with their long aging, are intended to take bourbon barrel beers to another level. They are designed to offer bigger, stronger, bolder flavors that today's craft beer drinkers crave, she explains. "You really have to pause when you drink these -- you shouldn't drink them too fast or you lose a great experience from their flavors," Sprecher adds.
Czar Brew is sold in four-packs for around $12. Both it and Commando will be tapped at the Malt House on Wednesday, Nov. 26 for a special pre-Thanksgiving release party. This is one of Sprecher's more limited beers, so it's best to look for it sooner rather than later.
- Aroma: Hints of roasted maltiness. However, an assertive bourbon nose really comes through.
- Appearance: Black body with a thin, bubbly brown head.
- Texture: Full bodied, round, and thick. Some carbonation, but not really bubbly. Lots of warmth from the very beginning.
- Taste: There is a firm roasted maltiness, yet the bourbon sweetness and warmth really takes over and never lets go of the overall flavor profile.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Warmth, a strong spicy-astringency of bourbon-spirits.
Glassware: A snifter style of glass is best for Czar Brew, to encourage sharing and tasting it slowly.
Pairs well with: The Russian imperial stout is a sipping beer that's great for a nightcap, especially on a snowy evening. It's also good with desserts featuring chocolate and caramel. Czar Brew and crème brulee make a great after-dinner combo.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Sprecher Czar Brew is a big and bold Russian imperial stout with lots of boozy warmth. That sweet bourbon element is strong and assertive, nearly overshadowing the malt, and that's saying a lot given this beer has such a robust malty character to begin with. Serious fans of bourbon barrel-aged beers will want to give this a try -- it's almost at the level of a boilermaker (beer with a shot of whisky or bourbon) with its spicy-spirit warmth and astringency.
There's quite a bit more bourbon character in Czar Brew than many other barrel-aged Russian imperial stouts. House of Brews released a bourbon barrel edition of its Kremlin a few weeks ago, and while that beer offers firm levels of spirit flavor and warmth, it's nowhere near the level of what the Czar delivers.
Czar Brew is a beer to appreciate -- sip it slowly and taste how the malt and bourbon combine in layers. It's worth hiding away a bottle of two of this beer to see how a few years of aging might mellow out the alcohol heat. The current bottles are a little too boozy-hot for my liking, as evident in a spirit-burn that found its way from my throat to my nose. However, it's quite enjoyable in front of a roaring fire when the snow is falling outside, a spirited way to welcome the onset of winter!