Perhaps the most undervalued commodity in all of craft beer, especially as it exists today, is consistency.
This is a natural side effect of a market that has been built up so intently around novelty, of course—the obvious end point we reach when surrounded by a constantly growing number of small breweries that are all desperate to stand out in some way. It’s the same force that has primarily driven the hype of beer geeks and collectors into the realms of crazily adjuncted pastry stouts, candy sweet sours, quad dry-hopped triple IPAs and exploding cans of alcoholic fruit slurry—one upmanship that has more or less reached a point where no further extrapolation is possible, and stagnation has begun to set in.
In that kind of market, it almost goes without saying that consistency is going to be overlooked. In that kind of market, something like “a very good, non-adjunct barrel aged imperial stout” seems positively pedestrian.
On the plus side, however, it does afford us an opportunity to go back and sample those sorts of beers with a fresh palate. And in doing so, you’re apt to remember how elegant and beautiful barrel-aged imperial stout can be, at least when it’s not carpet-bombed with marshmallow and Oreos.
I was thinking all these things and more as I sampled three new releases of Revolution Brewing’s classic barrel-aged stout Deth’s Tar over the Halloween weekend. Because truly, there have been few burly, barrel-aged stouts in the market that have been so beautifully consistent as this Chicago staple in recent years—not “flashy,” perhaps, but immensely flavorful and balanced at the same time. Tasting one, it reminded me of a barrel-aged stout heyday that has receded to some degree, as the expectation of notes such as roast, oak and booze have slowly been eroded by a quest for saccharine sweetness and fanciful flavor combinations. It was a warm, much-appreciated feeling driven both by brewing craftsmanship and an undeniable level of alcohol, and it left me feeling that these three new releases deserved some recognition. So let’s get to tasting.
The “standard” Deth’s Tar is obviously a Star Wars reference, as well as a nod to Revolution founder Josh Deth. Today, it stands out in the market chiefly for its simplicity and focus: English specialty malts, along with flaked and malted oats, and no additional adjuncts. No vanilla bean, no brownie batter. Nothing from a test tube. Just a massive imperial stout, weighing in at 14.8% ABV, dumped into whiskey barrels for a full year—pretty much the gold standard, if you ask us, in terms of the length of time you want to see a stout reside in a barrel. There are of course other Deth’s Tar variants that include other adjuncts, but this one (as with Goose Island’s core Bourbon County Stout) offering continues to fly the flag for a less-is-more approach.
And truth be told, less truly is more, in this case. With no obtrusive added flavors to get in the way, you really can suss out the many layers of that massive base stout and the magic worked by a year in the oak.
On the nose, Deth’s Tar is quite fudgy, with a pronounced chocolate richness that gives way to layers of oak and booze. The oak is of a more pleasant, deeply savory and spicy quality than the sour, twangy woodiness that is sometimes present in less accomplished versions of this sort of beer, while the alcohol notes enhance juicy red fruitiness. There’s a faint wisp of smoke as well. On the palate, the first thing the perks up on the tongue is red fruit, as Deth’s Tar sports pronounced notes of raspberry and black cherry, into more bitter black chocolate and molasses, giving the entire thing a very “cherry cordial” vibe. Residual sweetness is mild-to-moderate, balanced out by assertive roast, while the 14.8% alcohol acts more as a modifier than an outright flavor of its own. The whole thing is impeccably crafted—a classic “iron fist in a velvet glove.” No one element dominates or is out of alignment—not roast, or fruitiness, or sweetness, or booze, or oak.
This truly is one of the classics of the genre at this point.
As basic an adaptation as you’re likely to find in barrel-aged stout these days, Cafe Deth simply takes the base formula of this barrel-aged stout and “imbues our Deth’s Tar Barrel-Aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout with assertive coffee aromatics without overshadowing the base beer on the palate,” according to the brewery. The coffee source is Chicago’s own Dark Matter Coffee, while the ABV remains at 14.8%. Revolution recommends drinking this one fresh, rather than aging, likely owing to the fact that they calculated the coffee background to be more subtle than completely bombastic, and don’t want it to be diminished over time.
On the nose, Cafe Deth certainly evokes a lot of the same notes as the barrel-aged base stout—lots of chocolate syrup, now taking on a more distinctly mocha dimension, along with moderate oak, whiskey and ethanol, and touches of black raspberry and molasses cookie. On the palate, it sports a particularly thick and velvety texture, but is more dry than you initially expect from the nose. The roast here has really been bumped up by the coffee addition, and the bittersweet nature of it plays well with the black cherry/raspberry notes, with a bit of black licorice as well. The roastiness trends almost in the direction of vinous notes, combined with the huge ABV, but the booze still doesn’t impede drinkability.
All in all, this is a subtle variation to the regular Deth’s Tar that pushes the intensity of its roasty flavors toward a new plateau, but by no means would I imply that it’s the “superior” beer just because it has the additional coffee addition. Rather, I think it’s quite comparable, but likely to be the favorite of those who want more intense espresso/vinous notes.
New to the Deth’s Tar lineup this year is the inclusion of Maple Deth, a slightly lower strength offering (12.8% ABV) that spent time resting in freshly emptied maple syrup bourbon barrels, before then being sweetened with that very bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. The result, according to the brewery, is “an experience as approachable as it is satisfying,” seeming to hint at this offering being intended for those who find the other Deth’s Tar variants too intense (or not sweet enough) in some way.
On the nose, I’m getting a bit more of a warm, hard-to-identify sweetness or caramelized sugar, along with hints of honey roasted nuts and maple. The roast, booze and oak all seem to be dialed back on the nose, and the overall effect feels more flat and harder to assess. On the palate, the difference in residual sweetness immediately leaps out at you—it’s a little overwhelming at first blush, even though it’s likely not particularly sweet in comparison with many modern pastry stouts. Going from the base Deth’s Tar to this, however, it’s a big jump. Interestingly, it doesn’t read specifically as “maple” to me at first, but it is quite sweet—loads of caramelized sugars, with more subtle oakiness and overt whiskey/booziness. I find myself missing the more substantial roastiness in particular, and the welcome astringency of dark roasted malt that helps to balance out the other two entries. In particular, I think the sweeter and more decadent profile works better in other Revolution Deep Wood series beers such as Straight Jacket barleywine or Ryeway to Heaven.
All in all, I’m not surprised to find this variant as my least favorite of the three—I don’t think I’m really the intended audience here. More than anything, I’m just pleased to find that the original Deth’s Tar is still such a wonderful flavor bomb now as it was when first introduced; evidence that Revolution has indeed maintained its status as a leading light in Chicago’s barrel-aged stout scene.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.