On Thursday, August 14, 2003, at approximately 4:11 p.m., the second largest power outage in history occurred throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada. Those who experienced the Northeast Blackout of 2003 won’t ever forget where they were when the lights went down in the city. Some feared that the end times were upon us. Others speculated that a Y2K glitch had wiped out the power grid a few years later than expected. Certainly, the impact of the loss of power were undeniable; the United States suffered a $6.4 billion dollar setback, with Ohio alone loosing $1.08 billion due to manufacturing losses. Dollars aside, the population was exposed to medical risks when sewage systems failed and lab testers were even exposed to rabies when lab safeguards failed and voracious animals escaped. It was, to say the least, a devastating event.
But the massive power outage actually had some good effects. The stars of the Milky Way were visible from deep inside the cities where smog and lights normally block any chance of seeing the celestial wonder. Besides astronomy, there was also a very positive social effect. People actually went outside and spent time talking with their neighbors, hanging out on porches and enjoying the simpler things in life. You could say, in a way, it took an infrastructure failure for people to take time to live life the way it’s meant to be lived.
Whether the blackout was a collapse of civilization or an excuse for a block party, one thing isn’t open for debate: Great Lakes got the name for one of the greatest beers ever made. The appropriately named “Blackout Stout” debuted in the Great Lakes pub as a draft-only special in late October of 2003. The beer replaced the “Emmet’s Imperial Stout” and was an instant hit – perhaps due to the slight change in recipe or perhaps due to the catchy name. At any rate, the momentum behind the beer landed it in the seasonal bottle lineup and the first four packs were released from the Market Avenue brewery in February 2004. Since then, it’s won a string of Gold Medals at the World Beer Cup and World Beer Championships and is easily my personal favorite GLBC beer. But part of the reason I love Blackout Stout so much is that each year a batch of this luxurious liquid makes its way into bourbon barrels, where it resets for months and soaks in fantastic wood, bourbon and vanilla flavors. The result is an amazing beer that’s released once a year with a celebratory party followed by a “public on-sale” at the Great Lakes Gift shop.
This year, the event landed on the last Thursday of October, when the cold weather normally starts to set-in by the spirit of Halloween begins to peak. We had called in for tickets about six weeks in advance and were assured our space in the party. But, even with that security in place, we still arrived early as usual and got in line. Slowly but surely, people started arriving and, before we knew it, the line wrapped around the block. We met several people who had traveled from Columbus, Pennsylvania and Michigan for the event. Each ticketholder was guaranteed the right to purchase six bottles before the public, but there was still a nervous energy in the air. After last year’s crowded event in the pub in the basement of the restaurant, this year’s event was in the tasting room upstairs in the brewery, and, while the increased room helped the flow of people, the wait outside in the cool early evening weather seemed to add to the anticipation. At six o’clock, the doors were opened and we made our way inside. Each ticketholder was given an envelope and we quickly headed to the bar to claim our samples. Inside my packet were five tickets, each for a tasting glass of a different beer or different vintage of beer. One ticket was for this year’s batch of Barrel-Aged Blackout stout, four were for the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 regular Blackout stout, and one was for the Barrel-Aged Strong Ale called “Rackhouse”. I knew that the strong flavors of Blackout Stout would dull the sensitivity of my palate, so I opted to begin with Rackhouse.
Great Lakes Rackhouse Ale
In whisky production, the rack house is the building where the whisky is aged. Over time, the whisky takes on woody qualities and changes to its final form. Even though it was originally intended to reference the wood aging, Rackhouse is a very appropriate name for this ale, as the beer has gone through some tweaks and changes over the years. Most notably, the recipe was changed to incorporate more sweetness last year, and that has continued to this year. This is a huge bourbon bomb of a beer, full of sweet malts, woody notes and with a syrupy feel, making it very reminiscent of brandy or some other liquor. The continual evolution Rackhouse ale has undergone has lead to a very nice place, setting this beer as a unique and enjoyable American Strong Ale.
Rackhouse looks nice in the snifter. The beer is amber with hints of honey, crimson and ruby swirling around the glass. Unfortunately, the swirl does not reawaken the liveliness of the beer. This has very little head retention, which can be a consequence of barrel-aging. However, I’d like just a bit more signs of life in the relatively clear liquid that fills my glass. The smell is a bourbon lover’s dream. Rackhouse has more sweet caramel malt than just about any other beer I’ve had. Hints of toffee and even a touch of cherry give it depth. A nice amount of bourbon and vanilla showcase the masterful way this beer was aged. Not too boozy, but bourbon dominated.
The taste takes me to the middle of the warehouse, where barrels on shelves line the corridors. The transformation that is occurring all around me makes whisky taste the way it does – the wood makes the difference. That really holds true for this ale, as the sweet caramel malt is smothered in layers of vanilla and bourbon. Some sweetness and a hint of alcohol burn finish out a well-rounded palate. This is unique in its sweetness and showcasing of the barrel. Any fan of big, barrel-aged beers will love the tastes Rackhouse features. The beer has low carbonation, which is fine for a strong ale. The medium body is satisfying and has great viscosity. Some lingering sweetness and a touch of lingering alcohol finish the experience. The beer is slightly sticky, but never becomes syrupy. That, along with the pleasant tastes makes this very drinkable for a bourbon lover like me. This is not a beer for everyone, though, as its strength and disposition may make it difficult to finish for the uninitiated.
Does Bobby Like Great Lakes ‘Rackhouse Ale’?
Great Lakes Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout
After the enjoyable sampling of Rackhouse, I cashed in my ticket for Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout. I swear the lights dimmed and flickered when the bartender poured the beer into the glass. The glass was handed to me, and I noted that the beer was the blackest beer I’ve ever seen. It was the shade of black the Rolling Stones sang about painting things. We’re talking Space Mountain at Disney black. Blacker than Dick Cheney’s soul. Little, if any head was noted, but that’s to be expected with such a strong beer aged in Bourbon Barrels. I could tell from the smell alone that this year’s vintage of Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout was going to be one of the best ever. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous when I heard that the sourcing for the barrels had changed again this year. From 2005-2008, Jim Beam supplied the barrels and the beer was consistent and had a perfect blend of bourbon and stout characteristics. In 2009, the incomparable Buffalo Trace distillery was tapped for the barrels. The vintage was fantastic in terms of bourbon, but lost some of the balance. This year’s vintage was a big increase in barrel count, so a company that sources and reconditions barrels was sought out. The beer was aged in a few different kinds of premium bourbon barrels then blended back together. One scent and I knew this was a huge win for the beer. The vanillin and oak notes from the wood were so smoothly integrated and the boozy sting of bourbon was nowhere to be found. Notes of chocolate and coffee rounded out a fantastically expressive nose.
Oh my! Each year I remark that the beer tastes like heaven; seriously, I’m buried in bourbon, vanilla and chocolate bliss. In my notebook, I scribbled the following: “Dear God – When I die, please have this on tap at the Pearly Gates Bar and Grill – It wouldn’t be heaven without it!” The way this magnificent creation holds together is amazing. It’s extreme in every fashion, but somehow everything balances out. Barrel Aged Blackout Stout reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns has every malady known to mankind and that’s what’s keeping him alive. In other words, the extremity somehow creates a balance that works so very well. Subtle hops, notes of coffee, and hints of black strap molasses help to round the flavor. But, clearly, the chocolate malty base and the phenomenal bourbon barrel aging are the stars of the show here. The mouthfeel is creamy and substantial without crossing the line into syrupy territory. The carbonation gives a hint of life to the beer without distracting from the heavy viscosity. Perhaps the best part of Barrel Aged Blackout Stout is how imminently drinkable it is. This is a work of art; the beer is seriously up there with all the great beers in history. And this vintage is probably the best yet. I’m happy to add this to the bottles I’ve been cellaring and look forward to reporting back on a 2006-2010 vertical tasting of Barrel Aged Blackout Stout in the future.
Does Bobby Like Great Lakes ‘Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout’?
Speaking of verticals, as an extra treat this year, attendees were offered a vertical flight of previous vintages of Blackout Stout. While tasting vintage beers is always a treat, this was one area where the marketing or social media team at Great Lakes miscommunicated and really upset some people who had driven great distances for the event. They had posted on Twitter and Facebook that the party would feature a “barrel-aged vertical” and, instead, the “regular” Blackout stout was served. No sweat to me, as I have bottles of the Barrel Aged in the cellar and I actually enjoy Blackout Stout vintages very much. The 2007 was the odd beer out, with serious sweetness and nuttiness, while the other vintages varied slightly in levels of fresh coffee taste and hoppiness.
The only other complaint I heard all night was in regard to the food. While there was an abundance of pulled pork, bread pudding and cheese, several food stations were never replenished and the cheese station consisted of a wheel of cheese and a giant knife. I know Great Lakes is up against a logistical challenge with bringing food from the building next door, but perhaps having staff near the food stations would help in lieu of the “cut it yourself” method. This absence of official intervention also led to some partygoers setting up shop at the food stations because the tables were full. I for one don’t want to eat food after someone has been breathing all over it. Despite these areas for improvement, the event ran smoothly and the biggest improvement we saw was the lack of any sort of lines for beer. And, after all, the beer is the most important thing at a beer release party! Great Lakes did a fantastic job once again this year, and I look forward to yet another great event in 2011! We purchased our bottles and made the journey home, satisfied and smiling the whole way.
The next morning, it was cold and rainy. But, in a typical Cleveland fashion, people braved the elements and started lining up at 8:00 in the morning. The weather didn’t stop spirits from soaring and people from lining up all down Market Street. At 10:00, the public release began when the gift shop doors opened. From that moment until mid-afternoon, there were at least 20 people waiting for their chance to purchase up to six 22oz bottles at $14 each. It’s been a challenge to keep up with the demand and, unfortunately, once again, the Barrel Aged Blackout stout lasted substantially shorter than its namesake. The beer officially sold-out at 3:00, lasting just an hour and a half longer than 900 bottles lasted the year before. Sure, some late-comers went home upset, but those who made it a point to get there returned to their homes with their bottles and a huge smile on their collective faces.
The release gives us another reason to gather with old friends and new ones and enjoy the simpler things in life: conversation, laughter, and beer. I swear the stars even shine a little brighter on the drive home from the Barrel Aged Blackout Party every year (even with the downpour this time). Next year will bring another increase in production and head brewer Luke Purcell is considering putting Barrel Aged Blackout Stout in four packs. We may even see this treat in stores in the next few years. Besides that glimmer of future hope, the other good news for those who missed it is that I will be giving away a bottle of Bourbon Barrel Aged Blackout Stout in the next month as part of my Holiday giveaways! Join my Facebook page by following this link and “liking” the Bobby Likes Beer page so you don’t get left out when contest time rolls around.
No matter where you were back on August 14, 2003, you can revisit old memories or make new ones with every four pack of Blackout Stout. (This is the part where I would normally say ‘look for it on shelves in February’. But, unfortunately, Great Lakes has replaced Blackout Stout with DoppleRock as the winter 4-pack seasonal and moved Blackout to November, so you’ll have to wait until November 2011 for your Blackout fix. Back to your regularly scheduled conclusion.)
The moral of this story is as follows: if you’re lucky enough to open a 22oz bottle of Barrel Aged Blackout Stout, turn off the TV, get on the porch and have a block party of your own. This beer is meant to be shared with those you enjoy spending time with. Thanks to Great Lakes for continuing to produce such an exceptional product and a great release party! Cheers!!
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