Here’s the thing, when you write a lot of reviews: Sometimes you sit down to take notes on a beer, fully ready to work it into a trend piece or mini-rant on an aspect of the industry that is causing you some kind of vexation. Only when you actually get to the tasting portion, the piece you were planning on writing falls apart, because the beer you’re tasting isn’t what you were expecting it to be at all.
That was me, drinking Epic Brewing Co.’s new “Quadruple Barrel” version of their venerable Big Bad Baptist imperial stout.
I confess, I was entirely ready to write something about the comical excesses of pastry stouts. That type of piece certainly has been written plenty of times in recent years, but it dovetails with another story I’m working on—an essay about the decline of non-adjunct stouts in general. But despite the fact that I went into this “quad barrel” beer ready for it to be a cloying, sticky mess, I instead find myself more than a little impressed with how Epic managed to pull it off. They took a concept that most breweries would have run into the ground, and lordie, they somehow made it work.
I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, as I’ve always been a fan of the original Epic Big Bad Baptist. It’s one of the best barrel-aged coffee stouts you can regularly find in Colorado and beyond—in terms of price point and quality, it can scarcely be beat. And unlike many other barrel-aged stouts in the age of extreme beer, the original Big Bad Baptist largely makes its mark via subtlety. “Whiskey” isn’t the first flavor to hit your tongue, or even the fourth or fifth. The brewery’s use of barrels in Big Bad Baptist isn’t the star of the show, or something that props up an otherwise unremarkable stout. Instead, it’s a baseline note of wood and whiskey that elevates an already superlative imperial coffee stout, with everything in balance. But when you take a beer like that and add every additional ingredient under the sun, it’s easy to see how things could go very wrong, very quickly.
Just look at the description, which is one of the zanier things I’ve ever seen on a beer label:
Imperial stout aged in whiskey and rum barrels with roasted cacao nibs, barrel-aged coffee beans, barrel-aged coconut, and barrel-aged almond.
Ah, barrel-aged almond, you say. Very good, garçon. Do you have any barrel-aged cashews as well?
So yeah, I was skeptical. The more beers I see with extremely long ingredient lists like this, the more it feels like we’ve reached a moment in craft beer innovation where the beer geek segment is expected to simply be bowled over by the sheer amount of stuff crammed into pastry stouts, rather than the thought that went into combining those flavors. And as a result, it’s no surprise that I’ve had plenty of bad ones that are destroyed by either poor melding of flavors or miscalculation of their intensity. And of course, there’s the examples that cease tasting like beer at all, and just become little more than flavored syrups.
I am happy to report, then, that Quad Barrel Big Bad Baptist manages to avoid those pitfalls.
On the nose, this beer is positively fudgy, first and foremost. Chocolate brownie and vanilla bean segue into port-like fruitiness and stewed prunes. Brighter raspberry notes and more than a little sweetness give the impression of a dessert stout for sure.
On the palate, though, this is actually nowhere near as sweet as I initially expected it to be, given the nose. Coffee is the leading note that hits the taste buds first, followed by more of that port-like dark fruitiness and booze. The coconut is only present very subtly, but the nuts/almond make themselves felt. As I wrote in my notes, full of surprise at the time, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s not super sweet. It’s more like ‘fortified.’” Which is to say, you know you’re drinking a 12.3% ABV imperial stout that has spent some time in barrels, but the alcohol asserts itself in a good way.
If I was going to rank the intensity of all the various flavor components from “most intense” to least, it would look something like this:
3. Whiskey/rum barrels
The ultimate effect is not unlike one of those small, liqueur-filled chocolate cordials. Rich and decadent, yes, but not overwhelmingly sweet—and ultimately more drinkable than you’d probably expect. I certainly polished off more of the 22 oz bottle than I initially intended.
In the end, Epic’s Quad Barrel Big Bad Baptist is a reminder that yes, it’s still possible to find some fun, novel flavor combinations within the world of over-the-top pastry stouts. It’s even possible to make them in ways where you could conceivably want to drink 12 ounces at a time. We beer writers should hold more breweries to this kind of standard.
Brewery: Epic Brewing Co.
City: Salt Lake City, UT
Style: Barrel-aged imperial stout
Availability: Limited, 22 oz bottles
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.