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In Praise of Dark Beer

Repairing the black hole in the middle of the North Bay beer explosion

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When evenings dim and the weather takes an autumnal turn, thoughts turn to darker, heartier beers.

But a recent shopping trip for local stouts turned into a bit of a treasure hunt. I found just three amid one of the largest selections of 22-ounce bottles in North Bay beer country, while a supermarket oriented toward locally made products turned up one more. But where's Stonefly? Going to the source, I learn that Third Street Aleworks has discontinued bottling its award-winning stout. Stout's suffering, I'm told, because beer drinkers just want "hops, hops, hops." Fortunately, the four stout ales I did find exemplify the variety and quality of this plucky category.

Dempsey's Ugly Dog Stout This should appeal to fans of Guinness, the stout recognized around the world. Dempsey's calls it a "foreign style" stout—but we know what they mean, even if it doesn't sport quite the same compact, creamy head. It's medium-bodied, with aromas of dark, roasted grain, a creamy, substantial mouthfeel and a firm, appropriately bitter finish tinged with iron. A solid, pub session stout with a moderate 6.7 percent alcohol by volume.

Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout An American-style stout, this is hoppier and maltier, with big, beer milkshake flavors of bitter chocolate and sweet malt. Robust and packed with flavor. You may want this with a coffee crusted flank steak. 8.1 percent abv.

Lagunitas Imperial Stout Potent imperial stout, inspired by 18th-century English exports to Russia, is one style that seems to be on the rise nationwide. This, the brewery's only stout, besides the almost equally strong, winter-release Cappuccino Stout, reminds me a little of roasted twig tea and has burnt grain and barley wine highlights. With flavors of espresso, soy sauce, dark malt syrup and barley wine, this calls for some strong cheese, like aged gouda, to snack on. 9.9 percent abv.

Anderson Valley Bourbon Barrel Stout Good thing the brewery has an exclusive arrangement with the makers of Wild Turkey for a ready supply of quality barrels, because competition is tight; bourbon makers can only use the barrels once, after which they are often sold for reuse in the red-hot Scotch whisky market. This may sound like a bruiser, but it's just Anderson Valley's old standby, Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, with the booze barrel aging imparting a perfume of maple syrup aromatics. Like the Ugly Dog, it's medium-bodied and smooth on the palate, with a modicum of roasted grain, bittering hop character and fruity and nutty highlights. The bourbon flavor is just a warm, sweet crest topping a wave of mellow stout to the finish. 6.9 percent abv.

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