MOST RUSSIAN IMPERIAL stouts prefer to be bold. Bellicose, even. The beer equivalent of the Tsar Cannon/Bomba. Their reputations tend to be equally outsized, as breweries stoke the fires of fanaticism with hyperbole, ultra-limited releases, garish logos, and the like (to wit, Dark Lord). Some other producers, meanwhile, are content to let the beer speak for itself—and those that do often have more articulate voices.
One such prudent champion is Firestone Walker. Fairly soft-spoken amongst California’s boisterous cabal, the team led by Matt Brynildson has produced an exemplary lineup of beers both poised and powerful. Once more to wit, Parabola: a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout of 13% ABV, presented in a black wax-capped bottle and discreet, Scotch-like box stamped with the familiar fisticuffing lion and bear crest.
Parabola’s 2013 vintage (black, of course, with a half-finger of nearly nitro-dense head) is assertively roasted in aroma, carrying espresso, dark cocoa, and a bit of toasted black bread. Chocolate malts are similarly pronounced in the flavor along with earthy espresso and some charred oak, but the beer’s overall impression is neither harsh nor burnt. Considerably smoothed by oats, it also calls on the hearty Maris Otter and a generous handful of middling crystal malts to flesh out its body to an estimated final Plato pushing 8. The result is solidly fully, not quite syrupy, and heavily grain-oriented (as opposed to fruit or milky sweetness), and somewhat belied by the roasted grains that imply dryness in the simmering finish
While Parabola scores a solid victory today, if cellared a year or two it would likely win the day in a rout. Aged in 10-year-old Heaven Hill barrels, Parabola’s most refined qualities will need some time to steep. Its midpalate dollop of vanilla, twist of bourbon sweetness, deep smoky smoothness, and more alcoholic warming will assuredly expand and mature with age.
Still, we can anticipate these flavors while still enjoying Parabola today—even when fresh the beer is very neatly constructed, as is Firestone’s wont, and refrains from pushing its flavors too aggressively. Of course, one regrettable loss to time would be its hop character, which is already minimal. The high-alpha Zeus cultivar readily supplies Parabola’s balancing bitterness (82 IBUs), but the late-kettle addition of mild, slightly earthy Hallertau is too easily decimated by the intensity of the alcohol and the grain bill. Still, this is a minor and tentative point—Parabola knows its strengths and caters to them well. We’re best advised to play along.
Served: On tap (Skyline Loft, FoBAB 2013, Chicago)