I think it’s a fair to say that many American craft brewers take considerable creative license with the traditional style guidelines. Colin Vent at Seventh Son is not hesitant to use the creativity of his culinary training to dream up unique recipes. Who else is adding heather flowers to a stout (Galloway Tale)? Chris Davison at Wolf’s Ridge is convinced that coffee is the long lost fifth ingredient in the Reinheitsgebot. Don’t even get me started on beers made with Count Chocula cereal (Platform Beer) or Mangalista pig brains (Right Brain Brewing).
I don’t normally associate Lancaster’s Rockmill Brewery with that trend though. Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit Rockmill know that it’s the epitome of a farmhouse brewery, and their core lineup of beers are all traditional Belgian styles—Wit, Saison, Dubbel, Trippel. However, their latest release, Cask Aged Noir, is a bit of mash up of styles. It’s a black saison, which is in and of itself a 21st century creation, but they’ve taken it to another level by aging it in Middle West Spirits Whiskey Barrels. I’m pretty sure they aren’t going down this path at Brasserie Dupont.
- Brewery: Rockmill (Lancaster, OH)
- Style: Black Saison
- ABV: 10.0%
- Cost: $11 for a 375 mL (12 oz) bottle
Cask Aged Noir comes in 375 mL and 750 mL cork and cage bottles, but at 10% abv the smaller bottle was more than enough for me (not to mention the price tag). Like most of the Rockmill lineup few details are provided either on the bottle or on their website. If you look at the back label very closely under a bright light you can find the hidden phrase “Feed The Dark Wolf” written in black ink on the black label. That’s all I’ve got.
The color of this beer is what I like to call Spinal Tap black. Even when held up to a light no ruby highlights seep through the edges of the glass. As I begin to pour I see that there isn’t going to be much head, so I pour the last half of the bottle straight down the middle, but even that yields less than 1 cm of beige colored head. The vigorous pouring may not have conjured much head but it does disperse a bevy of aromatic molecules that reach my nostrils before the bottle empties, and what a delightfully decadent aroma it is. The mixture of vanilla, bourbon, and chocolate smells so delicious it’s hard for words to do it justice. The taste follows the nose pretty closely. Rich chocolate flavors from the malts meet luscious vanilla and caramel flavors from the barrel, while bourbon accents the already licentious mixture and provides just enough alcohol heat to cut through the sweetness. I’m hard pressed to find much in here that is recognizable as a saison, there is a background spiciness that may come from the yeast. For this style the amount of residual sugar sweetness is surprisingly low, which may (or may not) be due in part to the saison yeast. The bourbon flavor is most evident at the finish but is never too harsh, even for my delicate palate. The mouthfeel, if that’s what you want to call it, envelops your tongue in such silky smooth velvety embrace that it might be illegal in some countries.
Let’s not beat around the bush, this is an awesome beer. Rockmill might call this a saison but to my senses this is a barrel aged imperial stout in all but name. If you’ve read my reviews of barrel aged stouts you know that I’m not crazy about beers where the bourbon is too up front, here barrel flavors complement the beer without overpowering it. The vanilla from the barrel is to die for and the malts are long on chocolate and short on bitter roastiness. Another impressive attribute is the way it possesses such a sinfully rich flavor profile, but avoids the cloying residual sweetness that is the Achilles heel of many high gravity beers. This is likely to be my last beer review of 2015. If so I’m happy to finish on such a high note.
Rating scale: 10 = perfection, 9 = excellent, one of the top beers in the world, 8 = very good, one of the top beers in its style category, 7 = good, a solid beer I’m happy to be drinking, 6 = average, not bad but not something I’m likely to buy again, 5 = below average, 3-4 = poor, should be avoided, 1-2 drainpour.