Station 26’s Black Friday Invitational Revealed 13 Alternatives to BCBS
Black Friday is the yearly celebration of corporate greed and gluttony, known for stampeding families sharing in the time honored tradition of punching their way out of a Walmart with the last Tickle-Me-Elmo, or whatever kids scream about these days. In the beer world, it’s a day dedicated to bottle chasing AB-InBEV Imperial Stouts, or as anyone that has ever worked at a liquor store calls it: “No, we don’t have any!” This year, Station 26 Brewing Company set out to change that in a very big way with their Inaugural Black Friday Invitational. (All photos captured by Dustin Hall, the incredibly talented, and brilliant, man behind the Brewtography Project.)
The day started with my Lyft driver picking me up from my house in a late 90s Honda Acura that looked like it had just been vacuumed, but smelled like old smoke… so already I was off to a great start.
Today I was going to Station 26 for their inaugural Black Friday Invitational, a day that promised to be filled with high-alcohol-barrels-aged-beers in fancy glasses with finger food, known as the holy trifecta in craft beer. As my Lyft pulled up to the brewery, after 45 minutes of deafening silence from the driver waiting for me to get out, I spotted a large white tent covering the patio. I got out of the car and began to walk toward the door, immediately regretting my choice of cargo shorts and hoodie, as the beautiful weather was no match for the thick white tent. Although I was hoping for a day in the sun, I understand how quickly the weather can change and it was November, so no big deal. I was however, very happy to see that there was no line from the door at 12:30pm.
I had taken a risk in not getting there hours before the event started, like last year, so it was a nice to be able to walk right in after having my ID and ticket checked. Once I got past security, I was handed a gold rimmed Station 26 glass full of 13 tickets from a man wearing a United States flag suit coat. This was a good sign. While I have way too many glasses at home, I love beer events that include a glass made for the event and designed for the style of the beer being served. Add points to the left column.
Walking in and looking around, I saw that there were a few small groups scattered about and short lines at each station. After taking in the entire room, my first impression was how well the space is laid out and presented. Each brewery had large printed signs for the beer being poured, and each brewery had their branding displayed prominently. There were also several standing tables to set your drink down, two water stations with signage, and both a recycling and trash can in the middle of the room. As someone that frequents a lot of beer festivals, it is always a point of contention with me that simple things like this are often missed. It’s nice to be able to look across the room to see a brewery and the beer they are pouring, set my beer down while stuffing my face with food, and rinse out my glass with water. Recycling cans are unheard of at festivals, so more points in the good vs. bad section of my imaginary scorecard.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Star
After greeting friends and saying hello to people I haven’t seen in a while, I walked up to the bar and ordered my first beer: Station 26 Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Star. Now before you rage flip a table after writing a very angry letter telling everyone how angry you are, just know that S26B and Fremont also have Google and are aware that the other exists. No one is suing anyone.
Now, back to the beer.
Dark Star pours thick black with a tan lacing head that quickly dissipates, the aroma is full of light roast, dark chocolate, and a hint of caramel. The mouthfeel is a bit thinner than I was expecting, not as chewy as a lot of popular imperial stouts, but not thin either. My initial sip was smooth with chocolate upfront, vanilla and caramel after notes, and a nice warming bourbon finish. Compared to last year, I felt Station 26 did a better job of complementing the flavors of the barrel with the base beer, where one ingredient did not stand out more than another, resulting in a harmonious balance of high alcohol, not-too-sweet-but-not-too-dry, bourbon barrel aged stout. My only criticism is that the beer was served colder than I would have preferred. Since the beer was poured directly from the cooler and not from bottles or a jockey box, I assume that the temperature was in the low 40s. While some may scoff at this critique, I let the beer warm up by cupping the glass with my hands, which opened up the beer much more, allowing stronger notes of vanilla and bourbon to shine through. Standing there cupping a glass of beer may have been a bit pretentious, but I was drinking out of a gold rimmed glass… and you just scoffed, so I digress.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Dark Star BA Breakfast
It was only logical to ask for the coffee variant of Dark Star next. As someone that use to buy that-beer-which-will-not-be-named, it was tradition to buy the base beer and the coffee beer to try side-by-side. Unlike that beer, Dark Star BA Breakfast is a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout with maple syrup, coffee, bacon, and blueberry. Although it was enjoyable, it wasn’t drastically different from the base beer. Breakfast carries over the same characteristics as the base, but adds a bit more sweetness, some roast, and a bit higher perceived booziness. I will refer you to the first beer for the appearance and mouthfeel, as that did not change for the majority of variants, minus a few exceptions. The coffee flavor and aroma is not as strong as I was anticipating, but the addition of maple syrup adds a nice complexity to the beer that was not in the base stout. I will say that the blueberry and bacon was lost on me and I didn’t pick it up in the notes I took. It was only after reading the beer description for this article that I noticed it was present in the beer. If others picked up the nuance of blueberry or bacon, then your palate is much stronger than mine.
Powder Keg Brewing Co. | SUPERVOID (Breakfast Stout)
After rinsing my glass and eating some finger food that was served by event staff, I wondered over to the end of the bar to try Powder Keg Brewing Company’s SUPERVOID (Breakfast), an imperial stout brewed with Vermont maple syrup, vanilla, and Que’s Roaster’s Reserve coffee. This is another viscous black stout, but with a darker copper head that did not dissipate, instead keeping a thick lacing head throughout. The aroma was sensational. It’s like stepping into your favorite hipster coffee house and waiting in line for 20 minutes for a small cup of coffee, made by hand, that the barista created by pouring hot water over artisan coffee beans placed in a paper filter on top of a glass funnel, that you pay way too much for since you only have $20 left for the week, but that you justify buying because today is Monday and you’re already going to be late, so why not. It is incredible. Once I got past the aroma, a flood of chocolate and espresso flavors filled my mouth with a wonderful maple syrup finish that rounded out the beer so well that I wrote “damn smooth” in my notes. While the coffee is the showcase in this beer, the maple syrup adds a really unique flavor of toasted marshmallows, caramel, and toffee that melts into the vanilla and roast. This is everything a breakfast beer should be.
River North Brewery | Shadowman
River North holds a special place in my heart. Early on in my discovery of craft beer, I became friends with someone that was a huge fan of the brewery. He essentially educated me on the beer and the history of the brewery, passing on his reverence to me. Shadowman from the Vicennial series to me is the best beers that River North has made, it may also be the best imperial stout I have ever had. Ever. That is said with complete unabashed bias, but should not be ignored for it. Shadowman is a super-stout aged in whiskey barrels, intended for aging up to twenty years. It pours thick black, like 10W-40 that has been run through your shitty car for 8 months because you’re too cheap and lazy to get an oil change. The aroma is dark chocolate with caramel and sticky toffee with hints of stone fruit and molasses. The first sip in an overwhelming rush of rich fudge soaked in whiskey with a reduced glaze of brown sugar and vanilla. Notes from the barrel, the base malts, and the booze melt together into an irresponsibly smooth brownie batter that has zero astringency, alcohol burn, or an overly sweet finish. If you are looking for your once per year Black Friday replacement for ABInBEV, I highly recommend that you to meet a beer that is blacker than black: Shadowman, which is still available at the brewery.
4 Noses Brewing Co. | Ryeciprocal
Normally, I prefer an imperial stout that is dry, not overly roasty, and no bitterness. Stouts that taste like you’re licking an ashtray is not my thing. Same can be said for rye beers, too much spice and I am not drinking a full glass. Chalk it up to my love of sours, but I get heartburn easily. So, when I am drinking stouts, I go for anything that coats my stomach in fudgy chocolate. That’s why, I was presently surprised by 4 Noses Brewing Company Ryeciprocal. While the alcohol was a bit lower than my previous beer and the body was much thinner, the Rye barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout was a nice low roast beer that stood out as a solid, easy drinking stout, with some rye spice to it. After talking to the brewery, I also learned that the idea behind the beer came from primary whiskey barrel aged variant, Reciprocal. The brewery wanted to highlight the relationship between the process of making whiskey from distilling beer, that is aged in a barrel, that is then used to age beer. R(y)eciprocal takes that concept to the next puntastic iteration, using a rye barrel instead. This beer was a great addition to the lineup and a welcomed change of pace during the festival. I will be seeking this beer out.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | The Forager
Among the list of beers available, there were a handful of beers that were “must try”. For me that is all the weird beers. Station 26’s The Forager is an imperial stout with roasted mushrooms (crimini, shiitake, oyster), red and golden beets, chapulines (grasshoppers), rosemary, thyme, and sage. If weird was the goal, they nailed it. The aroma is earthy and smelled like a mountain bike path or the musk of a wet tent after camping with a subtle orange citrus character. The flavor of chocolate and roast from the base beer was lost in the weirdness of flavors, from tart cherry and orange citrus, to earthy and oaky, to tying a knot of twine with your mouth. While there were a lot of ingredients in the beer, there wasn’t a single flavor or aroma that stood out. There was also no unifying note to pull the ingredients together. Instead this beer was like a class full of elementary school children playing their recorders all at once, each trying to be the loudest. While I can appreciate the risk and challenges presented in this beer and applaud the brewery for trying something adventurous, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask why this beer was made instead of the Elvis, a beer that did such a wonderful job in combining peanut butter, bacon, and banana together making it my favorite beer from last year. Add points to the right.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | IKEA
Station 26 IKEA is an imperial stout with lingonberry and garnished with Swedish meatballs. I should have started with this beer, maybe after the first two coffee beers, as I missed the meatball that was meant to pair with the IKEA. I also had to Google lingonberries, as the beer had a very different character I couldn’t put my finger on. Lingonberries are quite tart, according to Wikipedia, and are grown in the northern and central regions of Europe. There can be some sweetness to the berry and is comparable to cranberries. This beer did not have the same chocolate flavor as the base and the viscosity was noticeably different. It also had a tart orange or apple bite to it. Although the beer wasn’t sour, it tasted very much like the chocolate orange slices you give as last-minute gifts to people you work with. While it was not my favorite beer, it was still enjoyable and the flavors were spot on for the description. My overall impression of the beer may have been higher with the meatball, but I was able to grab some chicken on a stick shortly after trying a few sips, so we will say that was close enough.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Almond Joy
Stations 26 Almond Joy hit every note for me. It was everything I expected from an adjunct candy bar stout. The aroma alone was like unwrapping an Almond Joy that you forgot about from Halloween that melted all over the inside of your winter coat. Sure, you could throw it away and avoid the chocolate on your fingers and face… or you could logically decide that you’re going to be covered in chocolate from cleaning your coat anyways, so you may as be a fat kid. The first sip finished with a much sweeter finish than the base beer, but that was to be expected. An imperial stout with toasted coconut, cacao nibs, and toasted almond is meant to be a guilty pleasure dessert beer. After the initial aroma, the base stout showcased the coconut and almond perfectly, which lingered on a silky and sugary finish from the additional chocolate and coconut. Nuts are always a hard ingredient to balance in a big stout, but the almonds in this beer did just that. They did not over power any other ingredients and didn’t get lost in the sea of fudge, earning this beer my Fat Kid Seal of Approval.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Sesame Brittle
I didn’t plan out my tasting flight, it was more of a matter of convenience. After drinking the Almond Joy the next beer needed to have coconut. It just made sense. Station 26 Sesame Brittle with toasted sesame seeds, ginger, toasted coconut, and caramel was perfect for continuing the coconut theme while adding some additional complexity. That being said, I am honestly not a big fan of ginger in beers, or ginger in general, as it often adds a metallic taste that I don’t enjoy. Not with this beer. The aroma was dominated by the coconut again, but with this beer there was a different pine and zest character to it, similar to Sprite… or Sierra Mist if you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t sell Coke and asks you if that’s a decent substitute. We all know it’s not. I assume this character is the ginger mixed with the toasted sesame seeds, which is not an ingredient I believe I have had in a beer before, which was fun to try to figure out. In my notes I wrote “now I want sushi”. The ginger flavor and aroma, with the coconut and caramel, worked very well together and complimented the chocolate well. I hope this beer returns next year so I can try it early on, to hopefully pull out what the hell toasted sesame seeds taste like. Maybe I will sneak in some sushi to pair with too.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Manhattan
Station 26 Manhattan tastes like a damn Manhattan. I could just write that and it would satisfy most of the nuance and overall presentation of this beer. The aroma alone was full of sweet cherry, bitter orange zest, clove, and boozy whiskey, followed by a very similar flavor with the orange upfront and sweet cherry close behind. Each sip opened up with a bit of peppery spice, some citrus bitterness, and a sweet bite that was all rounded out with a lingering warming whiskey tail. Compared to last year, this manhattan did not have any artificial notes to it. Since all the ingredients were from spices and not extracts, the overall experience was much more enjoyable. If you enjoy ordering a Manhattan after drinking too many Rolling Rocks at the dive bar closest to your house within walking distance, then this is the perfect imperial adjunct stout for you. I prefer an old fashion with my shitty beer choice, but I have had quite a few regrettable nights when I was feeling fancy enough to order a manhattan, so I appreciate how much thought was put into the blend of ingredients to make this beer (cardamom, coriander, gentian root, allspice, clove and orange zest). Well done guys.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Mexican Chocolate
Station 26 Mexican Chocolate made with Mexican vanilla bean, saigon cassia, pequin chiles, and cacao nibs. I loved this beer. It may be better than Copper Kettle’s Mexican Chocolate Stout, which is saying a lot. Mexican Chocolate Stout, or MCS as the coolest kids you know call it, was THE beer that got me into home brewing. In 2012, I tried a glass of that beer and it changed my entire outlook on what a beer could be. Before then, all beer was golden lagers purchased in 30 packs for as little money as possible, known as “college”. Since then, I love finding a good pepper beer, which is damn near impossible. That’s not to say there are a lot of good pepper beers out there, just not ones that I enjoy drinking moire than one glass of. That is because I have become a bit of a snob over the years from judging a ton of Herb, Spice, and Vegetable beers for BJCP competitions, which includes pepper beers. Unfortunately, they are usually undrinkable. Too much heat, too much pepper flavor, over carbonated (geysers), or infected with off flavors. So when I took my first sip of this beer, you can imagine my reaction of pure joy. This beer is wonderful. It tastes just like your grandmother’s Mexican hot chocolate, if you were fortunate to have a grandmother that made Mexican hot chocolate. I was not. We had Nestle Nesquik, which was bullshit. The spice in this beer is perfect. The heat was perfect. The chocolate and booze base was perfect. It was a smooth, dry, lingering bite on your tongue, with a rich chocolate finish. Hopefully next year they will bottle this, or I will have to petition the brewery. I really don’t want to start another change.org campaign, please don’t make me do it. Seriously Justin.
Station 26 Brewing Co. | Gingerbread
My mouth is full of fire emojis at this point, so the next beer needed to be something to cool off. I am also pretty drunk, but doing well enough. I should explain that I love imperial stouts and that my body metabolizes them better than other beer for some reason, so I am able to drink a lot of high alcohol stouts without becoming overly intoxicated. I should also preference that by saying, I am completely full of shit. I am drunk. Station 26 Gingerbread with ginger, vanilla, and molasses was a welcomed change after the Mexican chocolate stout. The cinnamon and ginger welcomed my nose to the party and then orange notes and molasses opened the door. The flavor was full sweet cinnamon that you’d expect from your favorite Saturday morning cartoon cereal. The ginger was pleasant as well, adding a coriander character, rather than an unforgiving bitterness. That may be due to the vanilla or the molasses, either way, the ingredients played really well together and created a round and enjoyable beer. While the beer was more cinnamon than gingerbread in flavor, it was really nice not to have nutmeg anywhere near this beer. Nutmeg is unwelcome to any party I am throwing, that bastard ruins everything.
Our Mutual Friend Brewing Co. | Gruppetto
Our Mutual Friend Brewing’s Gruppetto is an imperial stout with coffee, vanilla, and cocoa nibs. It was much lighter in roast and coffee than the Powder Keg Breakfast stout, but it was also a different beer entirely. This beer reminded me of the coffee shop around the corner that makes the best caffè mocha you have ever had, so you don’t tell anyone about it, since you don’t need more work from home professionals (assholes) on conference calls with their iPhones trying to impress everyone with a game of Forbes bingo. The cocoa and vanilla is upfront and very welcomed, adding a strong dark chocolate character that pushes the coffee into the background but doesn’t hide it. The coffee flavor is bold but smooth, so I’m assuming it is artisan blend of lightly roasted fair trade beans that cost entirely too much to justify buying more than a bag every year as a gift to yourself, but I am happy that they did. It was a really nice treat to end the event with.
Who are we kidding, I had two more beers after the “last one”. I was given extra tickets from people that left early, so I went and drank more beer. While I’m not going to do a full self-absorbed review like the thirteen before it, I will say that Ratio Beerworks Genius Wizard and Melvin Brewing Ruckus were both great examples of the style. I did prefer Ratio to Melvin, as it was bourbon barrel aged and Ruckus is not, it was smoother, and the body was thicker, but both beers ended the night nicely, putting me into the falling-asleep-while-my-phone-is-still-in-my-hands stage of the night, but not quite to the point of messaging girls from high school that were in town for Thanksgiving level. Instead I ate chocolate ice cream from Cold Stone I bought on my way home.
Take that feelings.