Back in March, I shared my thoughts on the two versions of Stone Brewing Co. Old Guardian barleywine, as you'll recall. Part of the brewery's Odd Beers For Odd Years campaign, this year's "Odd Beers" are dubbed "BELGO" versions, tweaks on two Stone standbys using Belgian yeast.
Finally, Stone BELGO Anise Imperial Russian Stout, Stone's IRS with star anise spice along with oak chips and the aforementioned yeast change, is now available in North Texas alongside the classic version. I know a lot of Stone fans were looking forward to tasting the brew, but I can't say I was among them. Belgian yeast with an oaked thick stout sounded like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Throw in anise, which has turned my stomach since the first time I tasted a similar flavor in black licorice as a child (not to mention later in the form of Jägermeister and NyQuil, which I am still not convinced aren't the same thing in different packaging), and you've got a beer that sounds scientifically engineered to disgust me.
But Stone sent a package with samples of both the classic IRS and the BELGO Anise version, which meant it fell to me to give it a try after all.
Surprisingly, I found that I really liked both versions, though I am partial to the classic version. The 2011 version is just as incredibly rich and velvety a stout as I remember from previous years. It's a near-perfect balance of coffee, cocoa and charred malt bitterness, subtle alcohol warmth.
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As for the Odd version, the anise and oak flavors were shockingly...subtle. Not what you expect from Stone, and certainly not what I expected after reading (OK, skimming -- does anyone other than the TABC agents charged with keeping beer labels G-rated actually read the novella-length rants on Stone bottles?) that the anise was "screaming." The anise was definitely noticeable, but seemed to go OK with the dark fruity notes of the Belgian yeast and the chocolatey bitterness. The oak seemed all but an afterthought, but perhaps there was a hint of vanilla layered in there.
While I prefer the original version of Stone IRS to the Odd Year version, I really dig the brewery's experiments with Belgian yeast (which go back to the 2008 Cali-Belgique). I'm looking forward to what Stone Brewing Co. comes up with for 2013. Especially if it doesn't involve anise.
Update: Heard back from local Stone rep Jason Armstrong, who says The Common Table has the BELGO Anise version on tap, and that it's available at Central Market, Whole Foods, S&K and Mr. G's, to name a few.