Clown Shoes has been doing lots of blending and experimenting with new versions of its beers for the past year or so, which is something I've been unabashedly interested in. Most of their bomber releases have been limited batches of brews combining their past brews with others, adding new spices or ingredients, barrel-aging or otherwise manipulating them to have fun with recipes and to see what can come of experimentation. Craft beer is about trying new things, and so I can get behind a lot of what Gregg and co. have been doing recently. So, when it came to my attention that their Chocolate Sombrero, a "Mexican-style" chocolate stout using ancho chiles and spice, would be redone using Indian spices in order to resemble a sort-of "Chai stout," I was definitely excited for the prospect. Plus, with a name like Bombay Berserker and that label, how could they go wrong? I found a bottle of this recently at Downtown Wine & Spirits in Davis Square on a recent foray into Somerville after an awesome hiking trip, so I hastily grabbed it, and now, here I am!
A ruby-tinged, inky black beer coats the pint glass with its viscous body as I pour it out slowly, bearing a slight yet firm ring of brown-ish foam that stays in the form of tightly-packed bubbles on the rim. The beer's nose does instantly remind of cinnamon and vanilla spice with a touch of curry and chocolate, some light nutmeg, a little boozy alcohol and some phenolic spiciness. Seems to be a very flavor-packed beer if the scent is any indication ... I like what they're going for here; having recently had (and reviewed!) a "curry" beer with definite Eastern influence, this has a similar thickness and boldness to the nose that, when combined with the high ABV, definitely has the intention to knock many complex flavors out of the park. I'm intrigued, to say the least! A slightly minty yet undeniably "spicy" scent plays around in the nose too, and I'm assuming that's the cardamom mentioned on the label. This pepper-like spice displays a bit of strange mintiness when combined with the tangy ginger, and it plays well with the roastiness and dark chocolate malt making up the backbone of this beer's nose. On the tongue, flavors of milk chocolate, slightly-spicy Indian cinnamon, nutmeg, herbal hops and tannic bitterness all combine with the slightly-sweet tinge of vanilla in the finish to produce a well-rounded palate that combines the smoothness and light spiciness of masala chai tea with the rough, hearty nature of a chocolate stout. Each sip definitely displays more of the added ingredients listed on the label, with the ginger becoming particularly more noticeable as the beer warms. Its bitter and tart character seems very apparent in the finish, replacing the traditional resinous yet earthy hoppiness most heavy stouts display, instead working to bring out the tea-like qualities this beer seems to want to show off. There is certainly a light savory quality that makes itself known as this stout warms, however, and it can seem a bit disruptive to the delicate flavor, but it's not too terribly obvious and keeps itself restricted in the context of a typical "imperial stout" flavor instead of reaching into (and disturbing) the spice balance. As it warms, though, Bombay Berserker does acquire a somewhat "sour" flavor that disrupts its effectiveness; slight lactic touches intrude into the palate, disturbing a bit of the balance here, but when weighed in total with everything, it's not too big of a deal... more of a minor gripe. On the contrary, this is intensely complex, with notes of cinnamon and a dusting of nutmeg and allspice coming out more as the beer dissipates halfway down my glass; the huge, burly mouthfeel of an imperial stout is definitely noticeable and this beer, like many bigger Clown Shoes beers, doesn't do much to hide its strength with esters and tannins floating around fairly apparently.
The rather smooth mouthfeel is punctuated by a warming alcohol approach that makes the proceedings tougher to drink than usual, but the spice presence is so complex and multifaceted that drinkability does seem like more of an afterthought. This is a successful beer, for all intents and purposes, and it really does drive home the idea they were trying to get across. The idea of an "Indian-style chocolate stout" is quite original, as several breweries have done "chili-chocolate" stouts, but not many have really approached the Eastern way of doing things. That alone makes this seem outwardly successful, but the warming quality of the spices combined with the deftness of the malt approach allows this beer a good bit of latitude in succeeding in the particular niche it's created for itself. I can safely say I've never had anything like this and, with that label and that style description, it's safe to say this beer will stay with me for a while. Despite its faults (like how it gets a touch sour as it approaches warm temperatures despite becoming more "well-balanced" in terms of traditional balance), this is a really interesting drink that could be paired with many "new-age" chocolate products, Eastern cuisine, Thai food, etc. to bring out the spiciness and interest of the brew while balancing the intensity of the cuisine on order. I dig this; another cool, experimental brew by Gregg and co. at Clown Shoes! Cheers!
The official breakdown:
- Style: American imperial stout (brewed w/ Eastern spices)
- ABV: 10%
- Appearance: A burly black beer tinged with slight ruby undertones. A thin, brown head, dominated by the oils and spices added, lingers for a while before giving in
- Scent: A bit barn-y, tannic and spicy with sweet vanilla and bakers' chocolate rounding it out; cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove and light tannic notes
- Taste: Nice chocolate stout body with notes of vanilla extract, cinnamon and the light tart bitterness of ginger in the back. Good spice presence
- Mouthfeel: Smooth and well-made with serviceable carbonation that carries the spicy, complex palate to a nice, solid finish
- Drinkability: Well, it's a strong beer so I would recommend drinking it over a long period of time to bring out the most it has to offer. Or split with friends!