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Vertical Tasting...It's a Thing

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Can drinking three beers with a friend be a huge event that was years in the making?
Recently this was the case. A friend and I got together to have a few bottles of Firestone Walker Parabola, which is a bourbon barrel aged Russian Imperial stout (mouthful ain't it? The taste is even more so than the category). We had the same beer from three different years, 2012, 2013, and 2014, also known as a vertical tasting. Ever since being introduced to barrel aged beers, especially Russian Imperial Stouts, I've always felt Parabola was one of, if not, the most balanced while simultaneously intense and tantalizing to the senses.

I was excited and curious about trying these beers and seeing how they developed. We started off with the 2014; it was everything I've known Parabola to be. Popping the top lead to a small smoke to arise as if an inebriated spirit slipped away from the bottle to bring hints of chocolate, bourbon, vanilla and all that is good in this world and let it slide into my nose.
With a nice strong pour into a snifter, the midnight darkness entrenched the glass. Now even more aromas rushed out as we brought the glass to our noses to take in all the glory that is Parabola. And now the coveted taste, Parabola is one of the few beers that can be so pungently aggressive and overwhelming, yet delicately smooth. Every sip allows all the flavors to caress the taste buds, coating the tongue and coolly sliding its way down into the pit of your stomach to suddenly warm and embrace it in a way that only grandmothers hot cocoa in a log cabin during a winter storm could do. This beer is amazing, it's a work of art that was encapsulated into a 22oz bottle and released upon the world but once a year.
With all this beauty we still had two different years of the same beer to indulge in. Amazingly the 2013 bottle was almost like drinking an entirely different beer, not better and not worse, just different. The bourbon was much more subdued and while the ABV was different by about 1 percent the '14 was much more boozy and hot, while the '13 was so much smoother and drinkable.
Next up was the 2012, while it's ABV was even lower, it was much closer to the 2014 in aroma and taste. It was difficult to discern major differences between the '12 and '14, yet the '13 had the booziness ware off and be replaced with smoother strong hints of vanilla, oak and dark fruits like fig and dark cherries. These fruits were present in the other years, but became dominant in the '13.

Herein lies one of my favorite occurrences in craft beer. People's opinions; my friend enjoyed the 2012 as he felt it to be the most balanced, but still carried large amounts of bourbon flavor aided by the vanilla, char, tobacco and dark chocolate. I preferred the '13. It was the smoothest and in my opinion most balanced. That smooth balance is the quintessential characteristic of Parabola. In comparing the two the '13 had allowed all the flavors to meld together and nothing out shined any other characteristic, they all just worked in harmony, while '14 was a bourbon bomb (although on tasting Parabola, even fresh, I wouldn't normally consider it such. Just in comparison to the '13 the bourbon really shined). Later on in the tasting, my wife came in and highly preferred the '14 over the other two. She loved the bourbon profile and insisted if you are going to imbibe on a bourbon barrel aged stout you better taste the barrel, the bourbon, the beauty.
When enjoying these amazing beers, no one's opinion is necessarily more accurate than the other. Each of these beers that incited such different opinions were initially the same, but all changed due to age and appealed to three different people for various reasons. These beers are absolutely awe inspiring when they first hit the shelves, albeit after spending a year in a barrel. It's just as amazing to watch these beers develop over time and take on their own personality if you will. There are not many hobbies around that allow you to pick something up, throw it in a cellar and pull it out a few years later to watch it have morphed into something so different. Doing verticals is currently my greatest joy in the craft beer world. I hope many more verticals await me in my future. Verticals of Firestone Walker Double DBA, Bells Black Note, North Coast BA Old Raspy, Deschutes The Abyss, Deschutes Anniversary, Stone IRS are all experiences I anxiously await, among other great beers.

If you enjoy craft beer and haven't done a vertical I highly recommend it. It doesn't have to be expensive and hard to find barrel aged anniversary beers; it can be more readily available seasonals or even year round beers. I'm holding onto some North Coast Old Rasputin's to do a vertical of and I can always find 4 packs around town. Oskar Blues Ten Fidy would be a great one, even something like Oskar Blues old chub. Verticals don't even need to be years vs. years. You can get year round beers and compare a fresh one with a 6 month, 12 month and an 18 month old one. There are endless varieties of good times to be had with craft beer, may you find your good time.
Tasting notes:
2012
Appearance- poured dark black no light getting through. A small layer of quickly dissipating head that left a nice ring of khaki head.
Aroma- smelled of semi-sweet chocolate, some mild dark roast coffee, slight bourbon and vanilla
Taste- absolutely wonderful taste. Nice hints of coffee and vanilla coated the mouth. Bourbon quickly followed but did not overwhelm in the least bit. Followed with smooth chocolate and sweet tobacco.
Mouthfeel: full bodied, coated the palate and allowed all the flavors to meld over the whole tongue and warmed nicely as it went down.

Overall
: very smooth. Exactly what one should expect from a cellared BA Imperial stout. All the flavors played well with one another and led to a great drinking experience.
2013
Appearance- poured dark black no light getting through. A small layer of quickly dissipating head that left a nice ring of khaki head.
Aroma- bourbon was much more prevalent as well as the barrel. Coffee, vanilla and lots of sweetness. There's a boozy sweetness and well as a dark chocolate and dark fruit sweetness.
Taste- following the aroma, the dark fruits played the dominant role. Not in a Belgian quad way, but sweetness was well balanced off the bourbon that quickly followed in a cleansing sort of way to allow the chocolate and tobacco flavors to lightly finish the taste.
Mouthfeel- surprisingly much fuller and chewier than the '12. This fuller bodied mouth feel played well with the sweeter characteristics.
Overall- amazingly complex. While the sweetness played a large role the amount of bourbon flavor allowed the other roasty chocolately flavors to play their role. A well balanced beer that allowed numerous flavors to have their moment of shine.
2014
Appearance- following suit with the other two this one poured dark black no light getting through. A small layer of quickly dissipating head that left a nice ring of khaki head.
Aroma- bourbon! Bourbon was on the forefront here. Lots of booze followed by chocolate and some sweetness
Taste- so much bourbon and so much barrel. With the higher alcohol you get boozy sweetness, not like the '13 but more of an alcohol sweetness. Greatly balanced with vanilla, coffee, char, chocolate, tobacco. Great tasting.
Mouthfeel thick and chewy like a BA imperial stout should be.
Overall - quintessential bourbon barrel aged beer. Bourbon, vanilla, dark chocolate, coffee, tobacco. A great beer that really sets the bar high for any imperial stout that gets aged in a barrel.
 
Vertical tastings are a lot of fun. Since the 2013 batch came out, I've been buying three bottles of Sweetwater's Happy Ending. Last year was the first vertical tasting, with 2013 and 2014. The difference was amazing, I love what age will do to an imperial stout. I just picked up the 2015 batch, and we'll be doing a tasting soon, with '13, '14, and '15. Can't wait!!
 
Hey, I just did a parabola vertical too! I agree, there was something a little bit different about 2013. I talked to the firestone rep and he said the barrels differed that year. Blind testing myself, I was surprised to find that couldn't tell much of a difference between 2012 and 2014 versions.
 
Not being able to get it in NOLA but having had one last June while in Cali, I'm big time jealous.
Nice write up.
 
Nice writeup Jesse. I almost feel like i was in that room :)
Glad we didnt down that Hunahpu afterward like the last little share we did.
 
@TheZymurgist
Happy Ending is one I have been saving as well, albeit just 1 per year. I have 12-15' now and was planning to do it sometime soon. I haven't had an aged one yet, but fresh it tastes like a high FG imperial Black IPA, so I am interested to see what age does to it! Where are you at in GA? I am in Roswell, near the Crabapple TacoMac. If nearby, send me a PM and I'll invite you over when i crack this vertical and some other beers.
 
@TheZymurgist
Happy ending sounds like a great vertical to do. Id like to see how the hop flavors change over time.
@thefost
That's interesting about the barrels. Good to know others had similar experiences.
Thanks for checking it out
@Roadliner @LyneNoella @Beer-lord
@skeezerpleezer haha thanks for bringing out the '12.
I started at beerforum right around the release time parabola '12 so missed out on that one.
That was def one of the best beer experiences I've had
 
I've been saving bottles for the last two to three years of my favorite barrel aged beers to do an epic multi-vertical tasting on my 40th birthday (in 2017). I've got a few vintages of Parabola, Sucaba, FW Anniversary, Abyss, BA Old Rasputin, Mother of All Storms saved up and I'm working on getting a 13 Black Tuesday to go with my 12 and 14. I plan on inviting a few friends over and making it an all day tasting. Now I've just got to restrain myself from cracking them early.
 
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