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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Beer Here: Maximilian Russian Imperial Stout (standard and bourbon barrel-aged) from Vintage Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

"There seems to be an arms race for strength and extreme flavor in beer, so much so that the Russian Imperial Stout doesn't seem so extreme anymore," says brewmaster Scott Manning of Vintage Brewing. The style is the boldest in the stout family of beers, seasonally associated with cool conditions, and ages really well. The release of Maximilian Stout, or Max Stout for short, is perfectly timed, as craft beer drinkers look forward to full-flavored and strong beers to cope with the deepest and coldest stretch of winter.

What is it? Maximilian Stout from Vintage Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.

Style: The Russian Imperial Stout is richer and bolder in maltiness than the more common variety of stout. The style goes back to the 18th century, originating in England as an export for the Baltic states and the Russian Empire, and takes its name from from its popularity with the Romanov imperial court. These beers can be quite intense, with varying amounts of roastedness, and a range of sweet to bitter flavors. It is 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.

Background: Vintage Maximilian Imperial Stout is one of Scott Manning's biggest and most flavorful beers. He says its bold flavors give it a unique place among Vintage's seasonal line. "Even though a Russian Imperial Stout would never be considered one of our normal beers, this one might just stand up year-round," Manning says. However, the challenge for keeping this beer on tap on a regular basis is its long fermentation time. It's held for nearly a year before it's released. "That makes it an expensive and long-term investment," says Manning.

Maximilian Stout is a showcase of deep, dark malts with caramel, chocolate and roasted tones. The hops that go into it feature American-grown Millennium and Chinook. While its 75 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) sound assertive, the malts keep the bitterness in check.

Manning says his take on the style is about offering a level of balance. "It needs time to lessen the harshness of the hops and bring out more of their flavors," he explains. "It can be an elegant beer style."

Among his inspirations for Maximilian Stout Manning cites Old Rasputin, by North Coast Brewing of Fort Bragg, California. "That blew me away in my formative brewing years. I think of it as the quintessential Russian Imperial Stout," Manning says.

The current version of Vintage Maximilian was brewed back in February 2013. It's offered both in a standard form, and in a barrel-aged version that's been quietly sitting in bourbon barrels sourced from Yahara Bay Distillers. The standard, non-barrel-aged Maximilian Stout is an even rarer find at Vintage because most of what Manning brews goes into the oak barrels for longer-term aging. However, right now (and through much of January) both are being served on tap, which makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison.

Around the brewpub, the beer's nickname is "Max Stout" because it tested (maxed-out) the capacity of Manning's brew kettle. When first making it back in 2011, he loaded the mash tun with the maximum amount of grain it could hold, over 1,000 pounds in total. All that malt makes Maximilian a beer to respect for its 8.2% ABV. And the barrel-aged version is even stronger. The standard Maximilian sells for $5.25/pint and $18/growler (refill), while the barrel-aged is offered at $6.50/tulip glass (and not sold in growlers).

Maximilian Stout is available only at the west-side Vintage brewpub.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: A soft, inviting interplay of roasted maltiness, with light notes of coffee. With the bourbon barrel-aged version of Maximilian, you'll notice a sweet bourbon bouquet from the very first whiff.
  • Appearance: Dark black with a medium, soft, tan-to-brown head.
  • Texture: Full-bodied, and as it warms it become silky-smooth. There is a nice soft mouthfeel that complements the maltiness, and, in the case of the barrel-aged version, the sweetness of the bourbon tones.
  • Taste: The malt and light-roasted coffee tones are up front. The assertive hops and the roasted barley in this beer lend bitterness; however, there's a nice balance with the sweeter tones of the malts. For the barrel-aged version, the flavor of bourbon sweetness begins as a background alongside the malt, before it builds and lingers into the finish. It's not a hot, boozy taste; just a firm, sweet bourbon flavor throughout that's very nice.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: The finish is where the two version of Maximilian really differ. The non-barrel-aged batch has a malty focus with a touch of coffee-like bitterness. As you would expect, the barrel-aged version has the sweetness of bourbon along with light oaky-vanilla flavors -- and all linger, adding to the soft warmth from this big beer.

Glassware: Either version of Maximilian is a beer to sip, and even allow to slowly warm, to bring out more of its malty tones. Allowing it to warm up is especially nice for the bourbon sweetness of the barrel-aged version. Vintage serves the non-barrel-aged Maximilian in a standard bar pint, while the barrel-aged beer is offered in a smaller tulip glass. Given a choice, I prefer any Russian Imperial Stout in a brandy snifter to focus the nose and slow the sipping process.

Pairs well with: Russian Imperial Stout goes well with robust and flavorful meaty entrees. Consider warm comfort food for this warm beer. However, I like it best as a dessert beer to enjoy on its own. If you have a sweet tooth, try the barrel-aged version with Vintage's "Birthday Cake." It brings out its wonderful sweet combination of vanilla and bourbon even more.

Rating: Bourbon Barrel-Aged Maximilian Stout: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)

(Non-barrel-aged) Maximilian Stout: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: Maximilian Stout has not received enough ratings to be evaluated at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.

The Verdict: Both versions of Maximilian Stout are well made. However, I do favor the bourbon barrel-aged release over the standard. That's also the consensus of Vintage patrons and therefore the reason Manning releases most of it that way. Both are rich and malty with caramel, chocolate and roasted coffee flavors. While Maximilian is full-bodied, it has a somewhat lighter mouthfeel than I was expecting for the style. I especially appreciate the bourbon-barrel version with its blended sweetness and warmth from the malts, bourbon and oak.

What's particularly noteworthy is how the bourbon and oak flavors stand out without an alcohol burn from the spirits. That can be a distracting quality in some bourbon-barrel-aged beers. Manning has this under control with this year's release. The barrel it's aged in, how long it stays there, the type of bourbon, and the amount of spirit remaining in the barrel at the time it was filled have a lot to do with bourbon-to-beer balance. That can also create flavor differences between barrels or between release years. Bottom line: The 2013 vintage of Vintage Bourbon Barrel Maximilian is a great beer, and fans of big barrel-aged brews should check it out.

Truth be told, trying the bourbon barrel-aged Maximilian side-by-side with the non-barrel-aged version is a little unfair to the latter. If handed only a pint of the standard, I might have been just as impressed. However, next to each other, the sweetness and warmth of the bourbon barrel-aged Max on a cold winter's day is hard to resist.

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