The Hop Vine
Big Beers from Alewerks and St. George

by Dan Yarnall

I’m not sure who invented the process of putting high-gravity brews into old bourbon barrels, but I’m sure that he was an absolute genius. It’s no secret that I’m not a bourbon lover. I really don’t care for anything that is distilled. Not that I find it repulsive or don’t appreciate its complexity; it’s just that I’ve always been and always will be a beer lover. However, the marriage of bourbon and stout is delightful. It goes together like peanut butter and jelly, hotdogs and mustard, or Romeo and Juliet for those of the literary persuasion.

I want to introduce one of the best examples of the style. Oh, and as an added bonus, it’s brewed locally. Alewerks (formerly Willamsburg Alewerks) arguably brews the best beer in the region with Café Royale (8% ABV). We should be extremely happy to have such a high-caliber brewer as Geoff Logan so close by. He has shored up their pedestrian beers and offered other nationally recognized beers like Bitter Valentine and Bourbon Barrel Porter.

Café Royale is a larger version of their Coffeehouse Stout, except that it’s aged in A. Smith Bowman bourbon barrels. The higher alcohol content helps protect the beer in the new barrel environment and stack up to the stark contrast of the whiskey. Café Royale pours with a pitch-black syrupy stream; the head quickly rises with thick rich beige foam; the aroma is a thin layer of bourbon with undertones of baker’s chocolate and espresso; and the body has a wonderful milkyness and residual sweetness. The brew cascades over the palate and finishes with burnt coffee and blended whiskey. The finish lingers with sugar, raisins, coffee and vanilla bean.

I absolutely love the Café Royale. Last year, the bourbon was almost undetectable and lacked balance. Obviously, Logan went back to the drawing board and hit this one out of the park.

Food to pair with it: Peppered bacon BLT, Hungarian Goulash stew, Chocolate covered vanilla ice cream.

The first run of this brew is out and mostly gobbled up. Hopefully, there will be a second batch of this delicious brew, so keep asking at your favorite upscale bottle shop/grocer.

Next on deck, we have another beer from a local brewery. St. George is the oldest craft brewery in the region. Traditionally, Andy Rathmann has been very rigid with his tasty brews and he’s stayed comfortably within style guidelines. However, he really gets me excited for the future of this hometown favorite with new beers that incorporate jalapenos, strawberries, and coffee. Today, I’ll introduce the St. George Russian Imperial Stout (9.5 ABV). Originally, this style was brewed for “Kate the Great” and her Russian court. Anyone caught imbibing on this brew outside of Kate’s circle would be punished by beheading. Ouch!

The St. George Russian Imperial Stout pours midnight black with the consistency of used motor oil. That’s a good thing, in case you’re wondering. An airy tan head pops up and quickly dwindles under the high alcohol content of this huge beer. The aroma is malt, raisins and dates with underlining notes of sweetness and alcohol. The first sip is cocoa and espresso, which turns into raisin sweetness and a slight bitterness from the hops. The finish is surprisingly clean with residual sugar and dates.

Food to pair with it: Meat, meat and more meat. Grilled steak, beef and vegetable stew, BBQ pork. Did I mention meat?

As much as I’m looking forward to St. George getting out of their comfort zone and experimenting with new styles and techniques, I’m glad that they are making solid brews such as their Russian Imperial. Nicely done guys and keep up the good work. Kate would have been proud.

You can find the St. George Russian Imperial Stout at Grape and Gourmet, Wholefoods, Total Wine and at their brewery.


Dan Yarnall is an experienced professional brewer, craft beer advocate and beer buyer for Whole Foods Market in Virginia Beach.