By: Alex Hannagan & Hamilton Riley
of the Virginia Brew Review
Our motto is "Life is too short to drink bad beer, but just long enough to write about the good ones"
Unless you're from Virginia, you hate summers in Virginia. Even some Virginians hate summer in Virginia. Do we have you thinking about summers in Virginia yet? It's all superliminal until you get to the dew shimmering on the grass, the deep blue sky, the sultry commutes, the broken A/C units... All of it in glorious equilibrium. At Virginia Brew Review we've experienced more than 100 Virginia summers, but don't ask for a definitive accounting. As we like to say, life is to short to drink bad beer, but just long enough to write about the good stuff.
There are probably two good questions you are asking yourself after reading the main title. First, who are you guys? Second, what mental institution did you escape from if your first article for Virginia Craft Brews is going to be about stouts in the summer? Allow us to explain.
Since 2014, the crew at Virginia Brew Review have moved our weekend conversations about craft beer in the Commonwealth out of bars and tailgates, and onto the internet. Well okay, maybe we were picking nits on the internet as well, but at least now we do so publicly. During this time we have tried to chronicle our tours of Virginia craft breweries, festivals, watering holes, and everything else we run across. Our hope, along with the great staff at Virginia Craft Brews, is to give a little insight into this massively expanding market to allow our readers to experience the very best our industry has to offer at the same time we do. If this is the first time reading our work, we operate slightly off center from your traditional journalist, because none of us are actually in the business (though one of us pretends to on occasion). In fact, we're engineers and managers in real life who battle illiteracy and approaching senility with the best of them. But while we like to joke around a lot, the one thing we are dead serious about is the love of Virginia and great people who like to make great beer in this Commonwealth.
The second question is a little harder to answer. While we are aptly aware of the typical yearly cycle of beer, you should not ignore a complete sector of the market even if it is a little warm (and humid) outside. The Virginia craft beer scene would not be what it is today if it weren't for breweries investing in this malty goodness early on; in 8 of the last 10 years, a dark beer from Virginia has won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Brewers in this Commonwealth know how to make stouts and they also understand our climatology.
You can try to live on lagers, pale ales, and wheat beers all summer. You'll also fail. So let us offer some suggestions to switch it up every once and a while with some great food ideas to go along with it. Your taste buds will thank you, and your friends will stare at you awkwardly. Then hopefully they'll put down the rancid adjunct "light" lager they're grimacing over and take the taster of your delicious stout with silent gratitude. Only issue full pours once the groveling begins.
Still, why stouts? It all starts back with Starr Hill and their Dark Starr. In 1999, it stormed out of the gate with a Gold Medal win at the Great American Beer Festival, the first stout to ever win a medal from Virginia. It would win 4 more medals through 2009, and remained the most decorated beer in the Commonwealth up until its “retirement” in 2016 after a lengthy hiatus from shelves. So in a way, you have a stout to thank for all the crazy success and expansion that Virginia beer has achieved since. Virginia Brew Review put it in our inaugural Hops of Fame class in 2015, and consistently harass Starr Hill to bring it back, even if only for a more proper Irish Wake than the one it got back then. Dark Starr was also a rare big beer that fare well in summertime, but only if you knew how to properly utilize its characteristics and flavors in the right setting.
To help you navigate these Summer Stouts, we're presenting them as a sort of menu. Not all stouts will be good for sitting outside in the sun with you on a blistering August afternoon, while others are best in moderation. The craft beer industry often talks about its wares as an experience - the point isn't to get drunk, but to appreciate innovation, quality, and artistry. Think of these beers the same way. As many are served in a 22-25.4 ounce bomber, you have to realize that slugging an 11% stout in such quantities is basically like throwing back 4-5 beers. Our recommendations will thus get into considerations such as serving size, complementary flavors, and most importantly, temperature.
Breakfast: Farmer's Special
Daylight Cravings - Brothers Craft Brewing (Harrisonburg, VA)
So we're starting with a coffee stout. Don't act so surprised, your highness, as if you actually give the stuff up for the summer. What's different about Daylight Cravings is that it's the rare stout which tastes better cold and straight from the fridge. It kicks off our list because of that one extra secret ingredient - maple. Try this tasting trick to really get the most of it: put your nose over the beer and soak it all in, then take a medium sip being sure to coat the inside of your mouth. Lastly, sniff the beer again just after you finish swallowing. This is a process we at VBR call the nose/body/finish. It's a way to integrate everything the beer offers and, hopefully, expose something new that maybe the brewer didn't even intend. The aromas on the nose are pretty straightforward, as the maple wafts up and sets your mind on syrup and bacon. Remembering that most of what we taste actually comes via aroma rather than our taste-buds, that big quaff that you hold in reinforces the maple with all that coffee you get in the body. The finish is what lingers with you in the minutes after your last sip, which is why you want to take that one last sniff because otherwise you're relying only on what your mouth tells you. The coffee in Daylight Cravings now predominates, coating the back of your tongue, inside of your cheeks, and the roof of your mouth. However, you know what we get as well? Steak! Like a pan-seared sirloin that plops down on the table in front of you at some greasy spoon on your last morning at the beach, the toasted malts come to resemble that same mild charring. The overall effect is a beer which is mild on the palate, eminently drinkable, and perfect to serve as a small splash on a summer morning. Share a bomber with 3-4 friends and see what we mean.
Pairs with: Bacon! Sausage! If you're feeling - ahem - saucy, a hearty splash of this beer right in the frying pan after you finish cooking the meat will deglaze the pan, releasing the flavors of both the fat and the stout. Mix in an herb/spice or two of your choice, and after another minute on medium-high heat you've just made yourself a pork pan gravy you can serve straight away with some flaky biscuits!
Raspberry Stout- Hardywood Park Craft Brewery (Richmond, VA)
Oh look, now a fruit stout...that's SOOO original. Except in this case, it is. Hardywood emblazons the Raspberry Stout label with the giant Great American Beer Festival gold medal that the beer won back in 2014 to help you take something like this seriously. Nevermind that the brewing scene in the Commonwealth is turning out oddly flavored stout adjuncts left and right these days, because for many people a stout resembling French Toast makes more sense than, well, raspberries. Unlike other beers on this menu, Hardywood's offering is one in which you really should trust what your tongue is telling you, and ignore the background noise. The moment it hits your lips your brain will go, "hello, toasted malts!" Then, even without any tricks, the finish is just going to reach into your olfactory senses and blare, "RASPBERRIES!" The effect is invigorating, and you don't need to slam the whole bomber to appreciate the nuance here. This really is a stout with flavor, not a beer that tastes like something else entirely (looking at you, sours and lambics!) Since we're recommending Raspberry Stout with breakfast, try again to share the bottle as otherwise it's a bit of a behemoth to start out your day. And trust us, you can't recap the bottle and have the rest later that night. Not that we've ever tried that, nope, not at all...
Pairs with: Toast with jam, fruit salad w/honey & mint
Lunch: Latin and Mediterranean Flavors
6th Seal - Apocalypse Ale Works (Forest, VA)
It's hard to miss a bomber of Apocalypse while browsing your local bottle shop. The dystopian, heavy metal labels feature some of the prettiest artwork around. Their stouts are also distinctive, of which 6th Seal is no exception. The bottle we poured is a 2016 vintage, so the malts have smoothed over, eliminating the toasted notes that can turn many off to stouts. Instead, 6th Seal has a very briny body followed by mellow cocoa and subtle spices in the finish. That wide range of flavors make this a versatile beer for pairing purposes, and since no one element dominates its lighter body that makes it a stellar addition to midday fare. Even with a comparatively mild (by stout standards) 7.5% ABV, drink from a snifter to fully appreciate how the nose and finish on the beer differ. In terms of temperature, you'd be surprised at how well that can complement certain dishes - the warmer that 6th Seal gets, the more that brine becomes the standout flavor. Cooler means cocoa. For the best effect, let it sit on the counter for 20 minutes after you yank it from the fridge or, alternatively, throw it in the freezer for 20 minutes if you're a snob like us and keep all your beer in a little basement zone that would put Gollum to shame.
Pairs with: Oysters, olives, beef tacos, enchiladas with red or mole sauce
Travesty - Center of the Universe Brewing (Ashland, VA)
We all have friends who have no issues pouring a finger or two of liquor and just slowly tossing it back over an evening. You likely drink beer because that's not your thing. Many brewers have reminded us over the past few years that liquor and even wine can actually make some beers - particularly stouts - better by aging them in the barrels or other vessels which produced those far flung libations. To be fair, while craft beer aficionados may be falling over themselves in line to get the newest BBS (Bourbon Barrel Stout) or Cabernet XBB (see, we just made that up but you were still curious, weren't you?) that's not exactly the approach which wins the casual drinker. But rum is a huge deal. Whether you're Jobu or Jack Sparrow, rum has a special place in pop culture more fit for the kind of levity that doesn't require Mila Kunis fondling a barrel and exposing gratuitous amounts of midriff to make it seem sexy. COTU's Travesty wants to be that beer, and let's be quite clear: after just a handful of sips, the finish will have you believing you just did a shot of white rum. It will remind you, blissfully or otherwise, of those nights in the dorms when you thought you were all-too-clever by mixing a thumb of Captain and a can of Coke...until your RA informed you in May that you had the habit of only drinking odd smelling mixtures out of your blue cup and they suspected all along. As a Milk Stout, Travesty wants to play with your emotions as well. The bottle is riddled with references to The Dude, but then why isn't this a vodka-infused Milk Stout? Couldn't we have made a Malt Russian? Those nihilists at COTU suggest a serving temperature of 50 degrees, which allows the rum to mingle throughout in a way that a curdled Car Bomb doesn't. At this point you may think we're talking about rum as a distraction or as part of some sinister drinking game, which is all very much true. The roasted sugar cane on the nose, sweet yet zesty body, and mild vanilla bite on the finish make you think you're drinking something else entirely. But it's still beer, and a unique one at that.
Dinner: BBQ (what else?)
ODIS - O'Connor Brewing Co. (Norfolk, VA)
Unlike most stouts on this list, this one is at the other end of the Brix spectrum. And if you had to Google what the Brix scale is just like I did for this article, it deals with sweetness. O'Connor’s Dry Irish Stout, or ODIS, tells you everything you need to know about this brew. It is an old-world dry stout, a descendant of Dark Starr if you will, and in a summer where sweetness comes from Mexican-Style Lagers and American-Style Lagers and “Pick-an-EPCOT-Country” Style Lager, it is a great change from the normal pace. You will get plenty of the sweet stuff when you are pairing this with ribs or wings. More than likely your second cousin, twice removed has the “best BBQ sauce on God's Green Goodness” and he bathes those choice smoked meats in them until they cry uncle, once removed. And if doesn’t he make that sauce with something like this or the next entry, insult his honor and start a blood feud.
Pairs with: Ribs, grilled wings
Blueberry Obsession - Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery (Goochland, VA)
Hopefully by now you're trusting us a little bit more. Either that or I've learned to type with the Force while my arms are bound into a straitjacket. Since you're still reading, odds are you're willing to see the logic behind us suggesting blueberries and BBQ. Let's start with the label. Virginia is for lovers, LCCB brews with love, and Blueberry Obsession is meant to be shared with the one you love. Still not there? The fact that this is an Imperial Stout lends itself to a super creamy, silty body that sticks to just about everything without overstaying its welcome. A vaguely acidic nose segues directly into what can best be described as one of those little acai or blueberry chews coated in milk chocolate. As LCCB suggests, the result is faintly sexual, at least until the deeply crisp toasted malts that dominate the finish blast the sides of your tongue and snap you out of the moment. You're left with a chocolate effect that more resembles cacao than cocoa, the sort of rich, earthy chocolate flavor more accustomed to a muffin than a brownie. Best tasted while cold but sipped while mildly chilled.
Dessert: Campfires and Charcoal Embers
Cocoborealis - Chaos Mountain Brewing (Callaway, VA)
The day is winding down and whether you’re up in Goshen Pass or down at Sandbridge, a campfire is usually in order. And if you have little ones who are still running around with little to do except asking 40-bazillion questions, giving them a project like making S'Mores is the best course of action. But us responsible adults would like to be able to pair these sweets with an amazing beer and Cocoborealis is right up our alley. It is not proven or researched or asked, but the descendants of Willy Wonka opened a brewery in Southwest Virginia that makes a stout with just an absurd amount of chocolate in it. Now this is lighter and slightly drier than most traditional stouts, but that works well as the half Hershey's Bar and gigantic Stay Puft Marshmallow you just consumed will make up for that. And graham crackers taste like malts, so there.
Pairs with: S'Mores, cookies
Orange is the New Stout – Center of the Universe (Ashland, VA) and O’Connor Brewing Co. (Norfolk, VA)
Deuces. There’s fruit and sweet malts. Brine and toast. COTU and O’Connor. Mother loving pigs and sons of motherless goats. When the brownout takes down your fridge, or your ice melted two days ago on the camping trip, Orange is the New Stout is your savior. Ignore that 54-degree serving suggestion and reach a bit higher, oh Icarus. Cooler gives you the fruit, and warmer the salt. As you’re ending your day, that means you can feign ignorance by leaving that pineapple right next to the grill so it “falls” on for a brief minute. Those char marks and the sweet acidity will light up your taste buds after a sip of this pun machine. Or you can shock everyone involved by just pouring this beer all over your sundae in lieu of hot fudge. Go ahead. We double dog dare you. And now we’ll wait until you finish making noises that make it sound like you’re agreeing with us a lot. Okay, maybe we’ll check back in 15…make it 20 minutes. If you’re still with us, you’ll have realized that we love deep cuts. There are no less than four movie quotes in there, from obscure 80s movies to societal commentary masquerading as sci-fi. That takes range, and range is what Orange is the New Stout has. We can think of few beers better suited to some time on the deck with you as the salt-filled breeze descends with the setting sun. Unless you can bottle that, and then we’d be all over it…
Pairs with: Grilled fruits, toffee, chocolate truffles, ice cream
We hope you enjoyed your time with the crew at VBR. Just like Virginia Craft Brews Publication, our goal is to showcase the best the Commonwealth has to offer. And justify our drinking habits to our wives. But certainly the former, too. Cheers!