Regular Aleheads readers know that I have a predilection for conditioned brews … cask-conditioned, bottle-conditioned, oak-aged, bourbon-barrel aged, etc. I love the mellow, complex notes that conditioning adds to a beer and I’m ecstatic that many breweries now employ cellaring experts who attempt to coax the best flavors out of their beers through the conditioning process.
But sometimes, aging a beer actually has deleterious results. For a case in point, look no further than the Terrapin Wake ‘n’ Bake…the brewery’s Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout.
I wrote a tasting note about the Oak-Aged version of this dark, heady brew a while back. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it wasn’t transcendent. Something about the oak-aging process mellowed out some aspects of the beer while keeping the rest unscathed. The coffee notes were as robust as ever, but the sweet maltiness that should have balanced the bitter coffee was strangely subdued. It’s like the oak-aging served as a noise filter, but only managed to cancel out some of the frequencies. It was a good beer, but it was poorly balanced and left a bit to be desired.
Contrast that with the regular ol’ Wake ‘n’ Bake. Poured out of the bottle, it looks very similar to the oak-aged version I had on tap. It’s black as sin and has a distinct coffee-colored head on top. This head was the first indication that the bottled offering was going to be better than the oak-aged. It was thicker, denser, and lasted for ages with good lacing that wasn’t as oily or slick as the conditioned version.
But the nose was the kicker…and what a nose it was. Whereas the oak-aged nose was utterly dominated by coffee, the bottled brew had an absolutely perfect balance of sweet and bitter. Sure, there was still plenty of dark roast coffee aroma, but it more than met its match thanks to the sweet caramel and molasses malt profile. There was even a touch of biscuit and earthiness behind the malt that gave an extra yeast dimension that was utterly lacking from its conditioned cousin.
The taste only strengthened my opinion of this version of the brew. Instead of getting that “last cup from the coffee pot” flavor, the coffee taste was rich and full without being overly burnt or bitter. The big maltiness I got in the nose was very present. Although I got plenty of sweetness at the front of the oak-aged Wake ‘n’ Bake, it quickly dissipated into a bitter coffee finish. Not so with the bottle version. That sweetness lasted throughout…and while the coffee notes did battle in the middle of the taste, neither side made much progress in the trenches. They both stayed on their respective sides of the Maginot line and my mouth was the happier for it. I even got a hint of fruitiness…maybe blackberries (I was going to say elderberries, but really, I have no idea what they taste like and this tasting note is already pretentious enough). Mouthfeel was rich, full, and viscous, but thanks to the increased carbonation in this version, it was far less oily than the oak-aged.
Drinkability was VERY high for such a robust style. At 8.6% ABV, you have to be careful, but I went through two of these in a heartbeat and if my drinking partner hadn’t killed the rest of the four-pack, I would have quickly reached for a third. I gave the oak-aged version 3 Hops…but this one absolutely gets 4. It’s the best coffee beer I’ve had to date and it just goes to show…sometimes aging a brew takes it to the next level, and sometimes it screws up perfection. That’s why the world of beer will always have surprises in store for even the most seasoned Alehead. To paraphrase Wooderson, “You just gotta keep drinkin’…man, D-R-I-N-K-I-N.”