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Great Beers: Lagunitas Willettized and High West-ified Imperial Coffee Stouts



Price Range : $12 - 15

Region: Petaluma, CA and Chicago, IL ABV: 12.2–12.6% Availability: Willettized – periodic small releases around the USA, mainly in the winter; High West-ified – not brewed anymore; rare taps, auctions, call me

There may be talk about corprocratic this or that and ideas of domination or selling out…
–Tony Magee, 8 May 2017

Humanoids accusing other humanoids of violating vaguely defined ethics codes have been perpetually occurring since caveman drummer-on-rocks Zog yelled “You’ve changed, man!” at caveman lead grunter Zok after Zok wrote the number-one-with-a-spear ballad “Oog I Love You.”

Primitive rock music in the Mesolithic is no different than craft beer in the Holocene. It would be foolish not to address LAGUNITAS BREWING’s two-part sale to the Dutch brewery Heineken N.V., currently the largest European brewer and the second largest brewing conglomerate in the whole wide world, that culminated in May 2017.

So there. It’s addressed… for now. 

Of course, at this point of the review, you, Former Dear Reader, are now grousing something along the lines of, “I’m here to find out if these high ABV barrel-aged coffee imperial stout malt beverages are worth my twelve American dollars, not read the hysterics of yet another hypocritical beer nerd—probably wedded to a host of other multinational corporations he’s unwilling to disclose—whining on about the co-optization of craft beer… plus, you CAN’T EVEN BUY two of these three beers you’re reviewing! You’ve changed, man!” Fair enough.

The 2016 High West-ified Coffee Imperial Stout (94 pts) has a beautiful mocha-colored head with aromas of medium-toasted oak, almost-burnt toffee, vanilla, dark chocolate truffles, figs and dates, chicory coffee, and ethyl alcohol. After waiting the requisite 15 minutes for it to warm up, High West-ified 2016 starts out with a pretty strong roasted tannic bitterness, followed by some ethyl alcohol/bourbon sensations at the top of the palate. What’s left after swallowing is almost like cranberries at a holiday meal, if your revered savory holiday cranberry recipe is based on the legendary November 2001 Bon Appétit holiday Holy Bible your brother-in-law tried to immolate for some reason that same year¹—port, dates, figs, vanilla, orange peel, hints of cinnamon, and mild sweetness trying valiantly to cut through the savory acidity.

The creamy mouthfeel of High West-ified 2016 is its most appealing attribute. After trying and failing to identify coffee flavors in this version, I concluded that perhaps the coffee integrated with other components during its time in bottle and contributes more to the creaminess—like a fancy coffee drink with steamed milk with an Italian name that ends in a vowel, maybe?

All of these flavors last minutes and, ideally, it allows you to take a deep breath, exhale slowly, close your eyes, enjoy the beer, the company, the independently-crafted artifacts ‘round your abode, and your overall enviable life of leisure… your feet up, your mind free, your cares vanished.

Or… picture this perhaps more realistic scenario. You’re doing dishes, coordinating schedules, putting out fires¹, sorta paying bills, objectively stressing out, and hopping from foot to foot because of painful plantar fasciitis or even a broken tibia head. A soothing, complex barrel-aged imperial stout helps get your head right for a couple minutes. The 2016 High West-ified works great here too. Fair enough?

There’s much, MUCH less oak aroma present in the 2017 High West-ified Coffee Imperial Stout (95 pts), yet the holiday cranberry smells described in the 2016 version are front-and-center. Lagunitas suggests (see embedded video) that they put beer into barrels only once, so it’s reasonable to guess there could have been less oak extraction in this particular batch, maybe?

Lagunitas also says in the linked video above that the bottled beer is a blend of beers aged three-, six-, and nine-months, and, as a beer in the “One Hitter” series, there’s only one round of blending and bottling per year—maybe? In addition, the 2016 is a year older than the 2017 vintage (obviously), so the oak aromas and flavors might intensify after an extra year in bottle? Maybe?!

Maybe (!) it’s worth pointing out a few things at this point: 1) All three beers were reviewed and dissected linearly, in the order they’re presented here, over the course of one hectic, decidedly NOT “enviable life of leisure” weekend afternoon/evening. 2) Two people tasted, as the beers are pretty strong (although, in all three cases, the alcohol content is hidden very well). Both have enjoyed Lagunitas’ barrel-aged offerings since their road- and plane trip-worthy Petaluma brewpub opened back at the beginning of the twenty-teens many times. The High West-ified stouts, truth be told, are amazing on tap with live music (beginning at 4:20 pm, of course) and (formerly?) complimentary shelled peanuts and pretzels. 3) The Spice Island blend from Chicago’s Metropolis Coffee appears to have been an ingredient in all three reviewed beers, although older 650 ml bottle and draft releases used coffee from Petaluma Coffee and Tea.

The 2017 High West-ified sat for about 20 minutes until we had a chance to drink it. In contrast to the oaky tannins of the 2016, the bitterness at the front seemed predominantly hop-driven, with roasted malt bitterness in second place and toasted oak completing the podium.

Hops? Yeah, hops! Remember those? The Brewer’s Association guidelines state that an American-style imperial stout should have “medium-high to high” hop aroma and flavor, yet poor H. lupulus might as well be in a “Have You Seen Me?” flyer stuck to the side of most barrel-aged stouts these days.

One of the NWOBHM imperial stout stalwarts was Rogue Brewery’s version, and there’s a hazy memory of that great beer being so aggressively hopped, the sludge in the bottom of the bottle would have visually identifiable hop parts… or maybe the memory is of my second-most successful homebrew directly modeled off of the Rogue imperial stout². Anyhoo, the return of the hop is greatly appreciated (and hopefully not imagined)!

The mouthfeel of the 2017 High West-ified is less creamy and slightly less complex than the 2016—a more linear mocha made with medium-light roasted coffee and minimal bittersweet chocolate, plus a deeply toasted Liége waffle with just a touch of caramel. Vanilla aromas and flavors, to the chagrin of my drinking partner, were minimal in the 2017. As it warmed, there was a lingering hoppy bourbon aftertaste, heavier on the booze than the oak. The 2017 is a fantastic beer, mellower and almost more casual than the 2016, lending itself to a fire in the chiminea and fancy chocolates, if that’s an actual thing actual humanoids have time to do anymore.

Around holiday time in December 2017, a new Lagunitas barrel-aged imperial stout showed up in Windsor, CA’s Oliver’s Market. “Yegads!” a beer nerd shouted out loud, much to the chagrin and concern of the proximal Oliver’s patrons, “Pray tell, why doth Lagunitas use another distillery’s oak barrels to age their imperial stout within?”

Well, it turns out Park City, UT’s High West was sold in October 2016 to Constellation Brands, home of a number of adult beverage brands you’ve probably never encountered: Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi, Kim Crawford, Meiomi, Corona, Modelo, and Ballast Point. Lagunitas—receivers of much online and offline handwringing, derision, and abuse for their corporate Heineken involvement—lost their deal with the new owners of High West for their used barrels.

Humanoids accusing other humanoids of violating vaguely defined ethics codes, something something.

Definitely the most oak-forward of the three beers, the 2017 Willettized Coffee Imperial Stout (97 pts) is eager to show off the darker, medium-plus to heavy toast and spicier rye from its new barrel supplier, the Willett Distillery of Bardstown, KY. It’s also somewhat lighter in color than its High West-ified cousins, the black fading a bit to brownish-black around the meniscus when swirled³.

The aroma of the Willettized is mainly the toasted oak, with cocoa and coffee bitterness fighting to subdue a slight, tantalizing acidic sourness that pops up just before taking a drink. It tastes exactly like a mocha made with bittersweet chocolate and half-and-half that had perfectly toasted marshmallows steeped in it overnight, then spiked with rye whiskey just before serving and just after it had been magically cooled by dark forces to cellar temperature. There is very little to no vanilla present, which led my drinking partner to deem it her least favorite of the three (although she still demanded more, funny how that works).

Integrated wood and whiskey mixed with caramel chocolate bar inadequately describes the wonderful aftertaste, and sticks in your gullet for a long while. As it lingers—whether you and your enviable life of leisure friends are finishing up a raucous dinner soiree that’s just starting to mellow, or, conversely, you’re failing to make much headway on those dishes and the laundry—there’s a lovely competition between sweet and bitter that ends in a truce of deliciousness. Sheesh, that’s a terrible metaphor, but what I’m trying to say is the 2017 Willettized is fantastic.

Willettized seems the most whiskey-like (and least beer-like) beer of the three. Again, this could be due to its oak being the most prominent because it’s the youngest beer, maybe? The first few times I tried Willettized, my attitude mirrored Zog and his knee-jerk reaction to Zok’s dumb cave-ballad “You’ve changed, man.”

Now, though, I’m more like Zog once he really started grooving on that D7/A9/G#dim/Gmaj7 progression in the “Oog I Love You” bridge and the subtle cleverness of the line Swaddled in a tiger pelt/Hearts will beat and glaciers melt. Is this, then, the taste of “corprocratic…selling out”?

Maybe…?  —B.S.


¹ He was drunk and needed paper to start a fire to fight off that bitter, grim West Los Angeles New Year’s Eve 2001 chill of thirteen degrees Celsius. 

² Of course, only two batches out of at least sixty were good. He who can, brews. He who cannot, writes. 

³ ‘Swirled?!’ Yes, swirled. Come on. You’ve swirled beers too. Like WINE?! Yegads! No I haven’t! So pretentious! I can’t believe you! You’re one of THEM! You’ve changed, man! Fair enough.

Contact brewery directly to locate these hard-to-find beers:

May 19, 2018