Westbrook Brewing Mexican Cake and the Rise of the Stouts

February 14 2015 - 2:16 AM

If you look at any “best beers in the country” or “best beers in the world” list, you’ll find listed a large number of imperial stouts.   By this, I’m talking about those dark-malt beers (and hence dark in color) offering roasted coffee flavors (or sometimes actual coffee), charcoal, smoke, caramel, and chocolate among the notes in their flavor profiles.  ABV’s for this classification start out around 8% and can reach 15%, as expressed by Goose Island’s Baudoinia, or even higher, as with Dogfish Head’s whopping, 18% World Wide Stout.  Given their alcohol readings, these beers are ideal for aging, as many imperial stouts can hold their excellence, or even improve upon it, after 5 or more years.  Barrel-aged versions of these beers carry an entirely new and exciting layer of flavor complexity. It’s not a wonder, then, that these beers are highly coveted and sell on the secondary market for triple digits.

In the beer enthusiast sector, one of the most talked-about beers, a “you have to find this” beer, is Westbrook’s Mexican Cake which is brewed in South Carolina.  One friend of mine recently traveled to SC, and hunting for Mexican Cake was not a minor objective.  That he came up empty is understandable.  Similar to Deschutes’ Abyss, Surly Darkness, Founders KBS, and Bell’s Black Note, etc., it’s hard to find a Mexican Cake at the local (by local I mean in South Carolina) liquor store, even high-end stores which cater to craft beer freaks.  Tracking down beers which play on this level basically becomes a game.  Fortunately, another friend of mine acquired a barrel-aged version of Mexican Cake via trade, swapping a Goose Proprietor’s Reserve for it.  Like me, he’s a huge Ohio State Buckeyes fan, and we celebrated the Bucks’ championship game by pregaming with his tequila-barreled Mexican Cake.  Getting to try this was quite exciting.

I poured the Cake, which registers 10.5%, into 10 oz. snifter glasses. The beer’s color is pretty opaque and you cannot see much in it besides, well, blackness.  My pal says he picked up tequila on the nose. I didn’t.  I picked up chocolate and a dark roast, coffee-like aroma.  I’ve had nothing similar in terms of mouthfeel.  It was velvety and grainy, almost like drinking flourless chocolate cake.  It wasn’t heavy but was rich.  I tasted chocolate, vanilla, and some cinnamon.  I didn’t really detect the tequila flavor but, towards the final few sips, I started to pick up a bit of booziness.  The more sugary and roasted flavors continually dominated the alcohol.  If anything, the tequila tamed the overall mix.  The supposed spicy peppers which highlight the base Mexican Cake, its pre-barrel-aged iteration, were calmed by the barrel’s effects.  This was a smoothly integrated beverage with a much more pronounced flavoring-spice profile than your typical barrel-aged stout.

Yes, unless you get on the internet and start trading, this beer will be pretty much impossible to obtain.  Westbook is not currently in the Chicago market and would it were, any Cake they shipped here would disappear within an hour. So, why do I even discuss the beer?  Because it’s a bellweather in terms of the market’s direction.  Increasing numbers of brewers, including local ones, are producing imperial stouts and are for such purposes obtaining and employing whiskey and other spirits’ barrels.  Yes, Goose Island’s barreled stouts, as a package, sit atop the food chain, but other Chicagoland breweries are producing some terrific barrel-aged and imperial stouts, such as Pipeworks (Over the Line), Begyle (barrel-aged Imperial Pajamas), Half Acre (Big Hugs) and, Spiteful (GFY).  I’m told that Indiana’s 18th Street’s Hunter Coffee is divine.

There are enough imperial stouts brewed or distributed here that you can usually obtain some killer ones, even if the ones which inspire the release parties, long lines, and pulling out of your own hair immediately stock out.  Fortunately, availability of these types of beers is only increasing.

–    M. Sheppard