Stone Brewing Company's 12th anniversary special

I had pretty high expectations when I picked it up; Stone is a quintessential American craft brewery, and I’m a fan of both chocolate and oatmeal stouts. I saved the bottle for two or three weeks, waiting for that perfect opportunity to open it. What could go wrong?

Bitterness. Bitterness could go wrong. Stone makes extreme beers, and the intensity in this stout is not in the chocolate or in the oatmeal or in the combination of both. It’s in the way it twists as it hits your tongue and turns violently bitter.

Now that I’m finishing the bottle, I think it’s amazing, but that might be because this 1 pint, 6 fl oz of 9.2% alcohol by volume (ABV) stout is the same alcohol content as four normal beers, and tends to hit people exponentially harder. Either that or I’ve grown accustomed to the bitter bite of the beer, and I’m tasting the soft chocolate flavor filled out with rich oatmeal stout.

The most striking part of this beer is that it is bitter. Really bitter, really shocking, really potent, really thick, black beer; this is nothing like a normal beer, but if you’re interested in American craft brewing or in love with stouts, then you already know that, and you can’t pass this up, because it’s not terrible, and it is very interesting. Share it with a friend to avoid overdoing it.

To get the real picture of why this beer is so interesting, understand that it’s the product of a unique American approach to beer and the result of rising oil prices and global warming.

Stone Brewing Company, founded in 1996 in Southern California, is the product of Steve Wagner and Greg Koch. In a description of their history, Stone’s website says, “We will always brew nothing but the highest quality, uncompromising beers imaginable.” What started as a small local brewery and tasting room turned into a huge restaurant and national distribution with tens of thousands of bottles each year. Stone is well known for beers that are uncompromising and excellent.

Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout weighs in at 90 International Bitterness Units (IBUs), almost an order of magnitude more than most mass-produced beers, and is 10.8% ABV, two to three times more than your everyday brew. You might worry that it’s undrinkable, but the online community of BeerAdvocate, with thousands of members, ranks Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout as the 16th-best beer in the world. RateBeer, the other large online beer review site, ranks it 25th.

Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale’s website says, “To view the Arrogant Bastard Ale site, you must first agree to the following: ... I am not a fizzy yellow beer drinking ninny here under false pretenses.” Arrogant Bastard Ale tastes like no other beer you’ve ever had — it tastes like moss, hops, and citrus in beer, with a wicked aftertaste. The IBUs are “classified,” but nobody doubts it is over 100. Nevertheless, this beer is a phenomenon, commanding the undying love of thousands of beer drinkers.

This is what American craft brewing is about. There’s no German Beer Purity Law here, this is a land of freedom. Freedom to put whatever insane-crazy ingredients you want into your beer, and strive your hardest to make it work, to turn what should be a spectacular disaster into a tremendous success.

Spectacular disaster is one reason why this beer is so interesting: oil and global warming. The 563-word epic label on the Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout also provides a good segue: “‘What if we wanted to brew another new, über hopped beer, but couldn’t because the hops weren’t available?’ Well, that’s exactly the scenario we’re faced with now.”

The price of hops and barley have risen quite a lot, not because they’re tied to the price of oil, but because farmers are planting their fields with a more profitable plant: corn. Corn is booming because of ethanol and biodiesel, which are booming because people want alternatives to gasoline. Not content with replacing sugar cane with high fructose corn syrup or having corn in everything from cake to paint, business is bent on using America’s wonder-crop for fuel, no matter the cost.

Around the end of last year, brewers began buzzing about a hops shortage, spurred in part by this move away from hops and barley, and also in part due to unusual storms that had destroyed a large portion of the year’s hop harvest. So the result is that, for their 12th anniversary, Stone picked a beer that wasn’t high in hops, but derived its bitterness instead from unsweetened chocolate.

Stone and other brewers should be back to their normal hoppy antics this coming year, as the harvest this year is at its usual levels, but it is interesting to drink a beer that is so emblematic of the times — an unforgiving American beer created by the unavailability of its basic ingredients. Knowing just the place it holds and what it represents, even understanding the risk that you’ll be put off by the flavor, can you really pass it up?