By Andy Phelps
I recently visited Jack's Abby's new taproom setup (open until 8 on Saturdays now) and found out that they had bottles of this still available, while coincidentally participating in their 2014 Battle of the Barrels. Why coincidence? This right here was the winner of the 2013 BOTB at the brewery! Basically, the brewery staff splits into several teams and gets money to purchase whatever ingredients they want, then throws those ingredients in a barrel at the brewery and blends them with a base beer of their choosing. This is barrel-aged Smoke & Dagger with szechuan peppers added and represents a bizarre combination of a rauchbier, a traditional German schwarzbier and a chili beer. S&D was already a pretty crazy stylistic blend of two well-loved German lager styles, so the addition of sweet and spicy peppers brings out yet another side to this dark and mysterious brew!
The combination of smokiness from the malt with the subtle spice and licorice notes of the aging and additions really come off as complementary, and the beer is beautiful to behold. A fairly opaque ruby colored brew presents in the glass with a several-finger head that dies down quickly to a small yet firm ring of tannish foam sitting on top of the beer, dissipating with some nice lacing as it drinks. The scent comes right out of the gate with notes of sweet chocolate malt, caramel, medium roast coffee, hearty spice, fresh black peppercorns, cardamom and, of course, a slight heat and tingling zing from the szechuan peppers. There's also a really interesting note that makes this smell like a peppered flank steak due to the smoked malt and added pepper component. The roasty, slightly smoky character of the malt comes through in the flavor, making the beer very rich and well-rounded with notes of tobacco, leather and rye bread all combining to create an interesting flavor that doesn't quite remind me of any other brew I've had. The restrained character of the peppers makes this supremely drinkable; there's not enough heat to put you off, but there's enough tang and spice that you can tell there's something interesting going on. On the back of the palate there's a bit of a savory, smoky quality that's different than anything happening in regular Smoke & Dagger; it's almost meaty, really, with the smoked malt coming to the fore and playing very well with the back-spicing. Notes of ginger, star anise and nutmeg also come out to play as this warms, bringing to the front some of the licorice notes I had sensed previously. This is really bold, complex and enjoyable, honestly. A slight numbing heat is sitting at the back of my throat right now since it's been a couple minutes since my last sip; this black lager seems to be reminding me of its existence. With another gulp, I'm picking out some notes of smoked chocolate and a complex "spice rub" melange of sorts, with flavors mingling even more than before. This is intense, well-balanced and extremely interesting.
This also has a great mouthfeel, which is par for the course for a dark lager from JA, but I feel like it must be mentioned how nicely this drinks. It's not heavy or alcoholic, instead preferring to showcase its flavors subtlely and with understated aplomb. It makes total sense that this won last year's contest, as it's just really well-integrated and clearly a lot of research was done by the team that created this brew to really integrate everything with the base beer. Smoke & Dagger was one of the first beers I had from JA, and, though I still consider it a very solid year-rounder, this needs to get better distribution and should be extended to a seasonal despite its complex aging process. I would love to pick this up more often, and I'm even more excited by the prospect of seeing what wins this year's Battle of the Barrels!
The official breakdown:
- Style: Schwarzbier-Rauchbier hybrid (brewed with spices)
- ABV: 5.8%
- Appearance: A gorgeous, lustrous ruby/brown with near-total opacity and a mysterious, wispy head that sinks to a cloudy surface without much lace
- Scent: Pepper steak, dark and milk chocolate, tobacco, beef jerky, leather, ash, medium roast coffee; slight licorice/anise/fennel, nutmeg/spices, vanilla
- Taste: A well-rounded concoction of smoked cherrywood malt, various kinds of chocolate, coffee grounds, roast malt, slight citric acidity and peppery spice
- Mouthfeel: Nicely slick and balanced with a good delivery of flavors to the palate; very well put together with a tangy bite and fantastic carbonation
- Drinkability: I would split this if you acquire a bottle by visiting the brewery, but not because it's a tough drink. Its subtle brilliance should be shared!