Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Tasting notes - Troubadour Obscura

But first... I'd like to respectfully ask for the attention of the Brewers' Association, all you certified beer judges, the GABF, World Beer Cup, and other friends of finely crafted beerstuffs: I think it's high time we officially recognize Belgian Stout as a uniquely classifiable style. The division to which it currently calls home (#16E Belgian Specialty Ale) has most certainly outlasted its welcome as a vague, catchall net thrown around the staggering variety of "special" ales which happen to be born of the most prodigious brewing nation on Earth. So, for starters, I'd like to propose we begin with cutting these fine and unique stouts from the herd. If there's room enough to include a pigeonhole for Baltic Porter, after all...

Anyway, onward.

Finally. After weeks of devastatingly glorious, distracting weather - weather that impeded my ability to come indoors for anything, be it the Toronado barleywine fest, Beerapalooza or what have you - nature seems to have finally returned to its prescribed course. The mist, fog, wind and cold that belongs on this stretch of the calender has returned along with the promise even colder, wetter days ahead. That gives us just enough of a window to finally clear the fridge of this year's hibernally-appropriate beers, before we make way for the saisons, märzens, gueuzes, and witbiers: and that, my friends, means stouts.

Not just any stouts, though. Belgian stouts.

Cut to the chase: Troubadour Obscura is the relatively scarcer sibling to the Troubadour Blonde that's garnered considerable shelf space in Belgian-friendly outlets, perhaps owing its own uncommonness to a confluence of retail myths: If it's has to be weird and expensive and pitch itself solely off the charm of its label, it needs to at least look nice, light, and drinkable. Honestly, I'm more surprised that our titular singer looks identical on both bottles. An 8.5% pitch black stout would seem more the territory of a Tom Waits or Lordi-styled crooner.

Surprisingly, though, it's an easy sipper. Whereas the imperial stout style has come to be defined by bigger, roastier, more bitter (and naturally, more alcoholic), Obscura follows the cream stout route to its logical continental conclusion. Slightly sweet, toasty (but not acrid), warming, and thick, it also carries a richly complex aroma from the yeast and fermentation that distinguishes itself immediately from its traditional brethren. In other words, this is not the drink you'd match with your finest aran and basket of grilled oysters, but one that you'd pair with dark chocolate, candied ginger, or an dessert plate of fruit and cheese.

Frankly, there's no truth in its status as a fringe category, as there are plenty of commercially available options out there, and the one that got us interested was this one: Van Den Bossche Buffalo Belgian Stout. Whereas I think it was the Wyoming in Des that urged her to pull this one off the shelf to try it (yes, that's a bucking bronco on the label, the most obvious icon for a strong, black, Belgian ale), it paved the way for what she describes now as her favorite style. It shares elements of some of her other favorite beers - Old Rasputin and Barney Flats in particular - in that its typical flavor profile is smooth, round, and balanced, with no jagged edges in terms of bitterness, apparent alcohol, overt sweetness, or hop aroma, but at the same time carries along with it that distinctly Belgian spiciness along with a neatly nuanced dark fruit and clove character and pumped extremely high with carbonation from bottle conditioning. The De Dolle example, a local favorite, is perhaps the most "Belgian" of the bunch, with a sharper, slightly more wild profile, but with enough roastiness, chocolate, and coffee to keep it from veering into black saison territory.

Belgian ales have almost certainly hung their success in the world craft beer market based off two things: the mystique of Trappist and other monastic breweries and their distinct styles, and the strong golden ale as modeled after Duvel. And it's debatable that their successes have something in common with the stratospheric rise of the pilsener: clarity. The strong golden and tripel have subtle differences, and are worlds apart from pilsener, but all can share a brilliant clarity of color that's been an appealing aspect for beer drinkers ever since clear glasses for drinking were invented. Based off that, it's not shocking that Belgian brewers wishing to follow the successes of Westmalle and Duvel would hesitate to delve into the world of dark, obscure brewing. But maybe based off the American craft beer world's insatiable thirst for strong, well-crafted stouts, more Belgians will follow suit and bring this style into the mainstream.

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