There’s always been a bit of a dearth of dark beers in South Africa. Well, there has, at least, been a dearth of good dark beers in South Africa. Too many of them are thin. Too many are overly acidic thanks to the brewer’s indifference to mash pH. Too many are overly charred, like burnt coffee grounds or a couple of cigarette ends dipped in a pot of airline coffee. In short, although I love dark beers I often find myself avoiding them for fear of being disappointed. But winter is here and it’s bloody cold in my house, so I thought what better way to warm up that by sampling a trio of stouts. They were a mixed bag, with a surprise winner that easily lead the pack…
Saggy Stone, based near Robertson, were one of the first breweries to begin canning in South Africa and their latest release is one of the sexiest cans in the country. Sleek, silver and simple, it contains the first in Saggy Stone’s Small Batch series – an Irish Extra Stout. The can is a beer nerd’s delight and the perfect way to offer the curious beerstander (see what I did there?) a bit more info on what they’re drinking. It features a full list of the ingredients as well as the beer’s vital statistics. My biggest fear was that so much effort had gone into the can that the beer might not live up. I needn’t have worried. This is a beautiful beer and one in a style that I don’t recall encountering in South Africa until now.
There is deep background roastiness, with aromas of dark chocolate, leather, coffee and a touch of Bovril (though not so potent that it becomes off-putting). On sipping, an initial cola-like sweetness washes over the tongue but it’s quickly replaced with a long mocha finish. It’s a complex beer, offering something slightly different each time you go back for another sniff or sip. And you will go back, for it’s a moreish brew that hides its 6.5% alcohol well. Best of all is the body – voluptuous and velvety, as a stout, especially a 15C (that’s the BJCP category – also noted on the can) should be. My only real complaint is that the coconut addition wasn’t evident at all, but then the beer was really no worse off for it. There is already plenty going on – more flavour and body than you find in most South African stouts. It is the best beer that Saggy Stone has ever produced, in my opinion, and I look forward to tasting the next in the series.
This beer somehow passed me by. It was brewed for the Mikkeller Beer Celebration in Copenhagen and never got a release in SA. I just happened to spot a bottle in the fridge at Claremont Liquors the other day but am not sure how it made its way there. Brewed with Gesha coffee (a floral and fruity bean originating in Ethiopia), there is alas not much on the nose other than coffee. It smells like wet coffee grounds – an aroma I associate with emptying out my mum’s filter coffee pot when I was younger and attempting to be helpful.
The flavours likewise almost all originate from the coffee rather than the malts – there’s a smokiness I associate with burnt grounds and a not displeasing flavour that reminds me of that marshmallow that you let get a little too close to the flames. The addition of lactose lends a certain sweetness but it’s overpowered by the coffee and the char and overall the beer lacks a lot of depth. Once you’ve swallowed, a long and pleasing finish arrives. It’s more enjoyable than the actual flavour, so you go back for another sip, are initially disappointed, then it mellows and the cycle starts again. I would love a little more complexity – for the coffee to be integrated into the beer rather than dominating it. And above all, I would really love a little more body.
I was excited to hear that another local brewery was having a bash at a Russian Imperial, but was left feeling disappointed by Darling’s first attempt. I found none of the aromas I would expect from a Russian Imperial Stout. There’s some caramel, and a definite whiff of fudge, but no coffee, chocolate or plums and no complexity to the nose. The ingredients list Madagascan Vanilla and I feel the addition was heavy-handed for it’s really all you can spot in the beer. The vanilla addition doesn’t work well with the roasted malts, it somehow totally overpowers, leaving you with a beer that tastes like toasted Flumps (not sure if Flumps are a thing in South Africa? Kind of marshmallowey but taste different when roasted).
Body-wise I was also left wanting. It’s not a bad beer, but not at all what I would expect from a Russian Imperial. I want complexity, I want a beer that pours like treacle and that warms me up on a chilly Cape Town evening. A decent beer but not one that lives up to its label. I recall reading that a portion of the brew has been kept back to age in a barrel – look out for the limited release of that later this year and perhaps keep a bottle of Arrow Head back for comparison.