By Fred Crudder, Industry Brew Expert
Maybe it is because of Valentine’s Day, or maybe simply because of the long, cold nights, but many people’s thoughts turn to romance in February. And as any (successful) romantic will tell you, one of the keys to success is innovation. You have got to keep it fresh, lest the object of your desires starts getting bored, and those once tempestuous fires begin to cool. But fear not...beer is here to save the day. That’s right, beer. More specifically, dark, luscious, complex, mysterious, and potent beer.
The Season of Imperial Stouts
The nation’s interest in beer is at an all-time high, and steadily growing. There is the right time and place for the perfect beer every month of the year, or more accurately, every day of the year. February happens to be a great time for stout. I am not talking about the watery stout that people guzzle pint after pint of in March. I am talking about Imperial Stout, the grandaddy of the stout world. These beers are dark and viscous, full of robust flavors of chocolate, roasted coffee, licorice, dark fruits, and occasionally a hint of smoke. These are big beers, but they are smooth and velvety, without any of the bitterness that can turn some people away from beer. In fact, this might just be the perfect beer for people who don’t think they like beer. Ask someone who “doesn’t like beer” why they don’t like it. More often than not you will hear that it is the bitterness. I suspect these people have never tasted an Imperial Stout, or had the chance to appreciate the depth and serious nature of such a complex beer, one virtually devoid of bitterness. The alcohol content in an Imperial Stout is nothing to take lightly either, coming in anywhere from 8% to 12% ABV.
The More Stout the Better
One of the best things about an Imperial Stout is that they frequently come in large format bottles, either 22 oz. or 750 ml. You might be wondering what anyone would be doing with that much seriously strong beer, but if he or she is smart, they’re sharing it. These beers also tend to be released near the end of the year or some time during the winter, when the warming effects of double-digit ABV’s come in quite handy. Even better, the complex flavors of these rich beers can develop over time like a fine wine, making them perfect to break out for a special occasion, or that special someone.
The Perfect Pairing for Stout
Like wine (even better I would argue,) beer is the perfect companion to food. What comes immediately to mind when talking about Imperial Stout and February is chocolate. These beers have a chocolaty character from the dark malts used to brew them, so they complement actual chocolates beautifully. The roasty notes of the beer add contrast to the sweetness of the chocolates, and what you have is a combination of flavors that will leave you breathless, asking yourself, “Where have you been all my life?”
As amazing and delicious chocolate is on its own, the pairing with a big, bold stout can be magical. The beer lifts it up off your tongue, mixes it together with myriad complimentary flavors, swirls it around in your mouth while your brain is assaulted with flavor combinations it struggles to comprehend, while its pleasure receptors are bombarded with sensation after sensation. And when it is all over, you can do it again, and it is just as good that time, and the next time, and the time after that. Also be prepared for some exciting surprises when you are shopping for Imperial Stout. You will find that many are made with additional ingredients, like chocolate or coffee, and many are aged in spirits barrels of different kinds (primarily bourbon.) None of these do anything but accentuate the synergies with chocolate, so let go of your inhibitions go and shop with reckless abandon.
Chocolate is Not the Only Food Pairing
But if you are interested in some serious foreplay before jumping right into dessert, don’t worry; Imperial Stout has you covered. A beer as big and flavorful as this needs a dish that can stand up to it. No delicate flavors will do. The roasted flavors in an Imperial Stout are the perfect match for grilled meats, and a big juicy steak is what you want here. The sweetness of the beer will not only match the richness of the steak, but it will play nicely with any freshly cracked pepper it encounters. But, my favorite food pairing when it comes to Imperial Stout is the most unexpected one: blue veined cheeses. That’s right, big, stinky cheeses and dark beers are a match made in heaven. Don’t believe me? I did not believe it myself until I tried it, and now I can not think of one without thinking of the other. If it is decadence you seek, look no further than a big, juicy, grilled steak topped with blue cheese, and a glass of Imperial Stout on the side. But, make sure to save some of that beer for dessert too. Whether you are having chocolate dipped strawberries, tiramisu, truffles, or some other chocolate concoction, that Imperial Stout is going to really help set the mood.