Prairie Artisan Ales - Prairie Noir
- ABV: 9.0%
- Serving Temperature: 50-55° F
- Suggested Glassware: Snifter, Tulip
Even from the initial pour, one gets the inkling that there’s something special going on here. There’s the slight viscosity and that deep, cola-brown color, for sure: things that hearken to the expectations and hoped-for density of great imperial stouts. But a dark-tan head appears as well, and ultimately sticks around for the duration: darker tan in color, with such miniscule bubbles as to appear a single entity, plus glistening lacing that coats the interior of the snifter (or tulip, or whatever your imperial stout drinking vessel of choice is). The aromatics tend to focus on the darker malt notes – bitter chocolate and a roasted meatiness – along with those core contributions from the barrel: light char and vanilla, warming ethanol, and burnt sugar.
But, man oh man, it’s the mouthfeel where this barrel-aged imperial stout really shines (or at least distinguishes itself; the flavor is pretty phenomenal as well). The bottle conditioning for Prairie Noir gives it a very fine, almost prickly carbonation that, along with its acidity and the warming elements from the preceding bourbon, makes this feel far lighter and alive on one’s palate than most imperial stouts. Add to that the bittering contribution of those darker malts and hop additions (herbaceous, for the latter), and you’ve got a hefty stout that allows itself a framework with which to support those robust core notes of milk and dark chocolate, roast, coffee, and (again) rich barrel contributions that offer char, vanilla, spice, and lush bourbon. This is definitely one of the most pinpoint, carefully tuned offerings we’ve had as of late.
Prairie Noir is sufficiently potent to allow for some significant cellaring time, but it’s ready to drink right now. For those with the foresight to snag some additional bottles, we (even more than usual) recommend cracking one open every few months to see how the internal balance of things is keeping. There’s an ideal profile in the fresh product – bright acidity, a tempered sweetness, a jolt of fine-bubbled carbonation and bitterness, and an additional leanness from the leached bourbon remnants – such that one’s individual palate will be the best litmus test of how things are developing over time, as the bitterness slowly diminishes and loses a bit of its forwardness, and as that secondary caramel and dried-fruit core assumes a larger role. Put briefly: this beer is drinking beautifully right now, such that it’s worth keeping a close eye on.
For pairings, we anticipate this working well alongside fruit-based desserts (everything from lighter pastry tarts to something like vanilla-bean ice cream topped with fresh strawberries), as this is obviously hefty enough to stand on its own and would have those middle notes of caramel and dried fruits amplified by the counterpoint. Chocolate and heavily charred meat seem like they’d line up with the top notes of darker malts, but this is ultimately a beer that’s perfectly capable of carrying the team itself. Those latter options may still work, but we tend to think lightly contrasting, palate-cleansing pairings (vanilla or even salty-caramel ice cream, fresh fruit, creamy cheesecake, cured/smoked meats, etc.) can help parallel those core notes without creating an over-the-top sensory experience. Or, just pair it with more Prairie Noir.
Let’s be upfront about this: We expect Prairie Artisan Ales to be the first craft brewery based in Oklahoma to make its presence felt nationwide. To be sure, this isn’t to say that great beer isn’t happening elsewhere in Oklahoma. But Prairie co-founders Chase and Colin Healey just recently signed on with Shelton Brothers to start wider distribution throughout the U.S., and they’re making some truly exceptional saisons and barrel-aged offerings from the outset. For our members, though, we’re happy to be able to offer an especially limited release. The initial batch of Prairie Noir was limited to 100 cases, which were distributed solely in Oklahoma. In terms of the second batch: all but about 50 cases have been allocated for The Rare Beer Club.
While Prairie just brewed its initial batch of beer last September, brewmaster Chase Healey is hardly a stranger to the Oklahoma craft beer scene. His resume includes brewing positions at COOP Ale Works and Redbud Brewing Company, both based in Oklahoma City and rather distinct in their experimental direction (wild-yeast wheat wines, dry-hopped Belgian-style ales with Champagne yeast… that sort of thing). Healey turned down a brewmaster gig in Dallas, Texas to instead strike out on his own, with his brother/co-founder Colin. Chase directs the brewing side, while Colin serves as the art director: crafting distinctive labels that highlight a local tone and whimsy (including, but not limited to, fearless hens and catfish noodling tips).
We’ve certainly enjoyed other offerings from Prairie Artisan Ales (particular their Prairie Ale, a deft saison with the tart touch of Brettanomyces), but it was their Prairie Noir that blew us away. A world-class, barrel-aged imperial stout, in Oklahoma? Absolutely. Some of our most attentive members may notice that we’ve featured multiple barrel-aged imperial stouts lately, including Blue Mountain’s Coffee and Chocolate Dark Hollow and Grand Teton’s Bourbon Black Cauldron. We’ve had a very positive response from our members regarding these past selections, and we’d encourage those who still have bottles of either to take the opportunity to sample these beers side by side (ideally with friends in tow!). The barrel contributions are distinctly different in each, and demonstrate just how varied this imperial sub-style can be.
The use of wooden barrels for storing beer is hardly anything new. Before stainless steel and aluminum kegs became commonplace, watertight barrels were the storage vessels of choice for transporting beer and keeping it isolated from the outside world. (More specifically: wild yeasts, airborne bacteria, thirsty passersby, etc.) Though the wood itself was generally treated and often lined with pitch to maintain a neutral influence on the beverage within, there are at least a few historical examples of beer barrels being more than mere containers. The lambics of Belgium are perhaps the most obvious, often bringing along the subtle influences of oak.
In the 1990s, Midwest breweries including Goose Island and Flossmoor Station began aging imperial stouts in oak barrels that had previously housed bourbon or other whiskeys. Instead of aiming for neutrality, the intent became to commingle the base beers with the influence of both the previously held spirit and the wood itself. Even if these weren’t the first instances in history of using once-alcohol-filled barrels to deliberately impart additional character to beer (I’ve yet to see a convincing counterclaim), they certainly sparked the subsequent fire. Today, one can find beers being aged in barrels that once held whiskey, wine, bourbon, brandy, rum, Scotch, cognac, tequila, sake, cachaça, and more. (Brewers have even used Tabasco barrels!)
Whatever the preceding contents, the art of aging beer in wooden barrels requires more than merely a funnel and patience. It’s a matter of creating an appropriate base beer, determining the ideal aging period, managing temperature fluctuations (allowing the beer to travel farther into the wood as the latter expands and contracts), and countless other considerations. There is also, given each barrel’s own individual nuances of construction and history, generally a bit of luck involved. So: Fingers crossed. When it goes well, as in the case of Prairie Noir, barrel aging offers something wholly unique: a precise, seamless union of fermentations and wood.
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