Stout and Wide: The Burly Beers of Bell’s

Bell’s, the pioneering craft brewery of the Midwest, most often conjures up images of sun and summer. Oberon Day is an unofficial holiday in Michigan and the crisp wheat beer fuels Midwestern summers. Two Hearted is the year long flagship, a classic IPA that is still one of the best available. And yet the brewery’s greatest strength in terms of style might just be its stouts. Other breweries in the area tend to get more hype (think Founders with KBS or Three Floyds and Dark Lord) but very few in the country produce such a well-rounded, expansive and great stout lineup as Bell’s. In fact Bell’s has six different stouts that see packaging each year, one year-round, four specialty and one that tends towards “whaledom”. 

In my grand tradition of oversized tastings, I sat down last weekend for an afternoon of basketball games and a deep dive into each of the six stouts. Most I had had before, but never all at the same time. This would give me a chance to revisit some and to examine these burly beers altogether.

Kalamazoo Stout

I first had this beer in my nascent craft beer days when Chelsea, who was going to school in Kalamazoo at the time, got me a six-pack for Valentine’s Day. At the time it was a bit of a shock, a bigger, roastier beer than I was used to. These were the days where I was still acclimating to bitterness and the roasted malt bitterness was enough to have me second guessing this gift.

Now I almost look back and laugh at that initial reaction. As an easy to get everyday stout I love this beer. It is certainly heavy on the roast and there’s a distinct char that gets lost in so many of the variations on the style. It’s full-bodied and smooth with a touch of added complexity from the addition of brewer’s licorice. Chocolate and coffee flavors play next to the roast and at only 6% ABV having more than a couple isn’t going to do you in for the night. I had been a couple years since I had had one and I was quickly reminded that this year-round stout should have a place in my fridge every few months.

Cherry Stout

My memories of Cherry Stout are not pleasant. My first encounter came during the annual New Beer’s trip in 2013 with my father-in-law and brother-in-law and none of us liked it. This is typically the most divisive stout that Bell’s makes. That distinct tartness added by the Mortmorency cherries can turn a lot of people off. But back in 2013 I had never tried a sour beer before and tartness in my beer was not something I expected.

As I revisit Cherry Stout just over three years later, it’s much better than I remember. I don’t think that’s a comment on the beer, but rather my growth as a drinker. The slight tartness from the cherries plays well with the dark chocolate notes from the malt. This is certainly not a sour beer but the tartness is enough to be surprising if you’re instead expecting sweet chocolate covered cherries. I’m glad that a few years later I like this one better as it’s the only one I could not find in single bottles and had to purchase a whole six pack.

Java Stout

Coffee stouts are pretty prevalent these days but when this one was first brewed it was one of only a few. It was also the one stout I had never had.

Coffee tends to be one of the more volatile adjuncts used in beer. It can die off quickly, simply fading away or transforming into a green pepper-like vegetal note. It was this vegetal note that I distinctly picked up in my five-month-old bottle. Judging by reviews on other sites, that’s not typical of this beer. In most cases this is your typical coffee stout with familiar roast coffee character and dark, rich chocolate.

Personally I actually liked the green pepper notes. It added an interesting note to the beer, which did indeed still show some classic coffee flavors. In fact it really showed the balance that is so often missing in the trendy world of chile pepper stouts these days. I would be interested to taste this one again fresh to see if the green pepper character is just a matter of age or perhaps something I am just more sensitive to.

Special Double Cream Stout

This would be the leading candidate for a second year-round stout. Picture the complexity of Kalamazoo Stout minus the char and add in an incredibly smooth, creamy mouthfeel. Special Double Cream Stout achieves its remarkable complexity from a blend of ten specially roasted malts.

A melange of rich chocolate, espresso and chocolate brownies permeates this beer, all transported by velvety smooth liquid. A touch of roast on the finish keeps it from being too sweet. This one is certainly more approachable than Kalamazoo Stout and there’s a reason it serves as part of the blend for the singular expression of Bell’s stout prowess.

Expedition Stout

Expedition Stout is one of my favorite beers in the entire world. And while it is exceptional fresh, cellaring a six pack for years can bring wonderful complexities to it. I currently have three year’s worth in my basement that I’m not planning to touch until the oldest hits at least the five year mark. But for the cases of this exploration we’re looking at what Expedition Stout is like fresh.

Like Java Stout, Expedition Stout was one of the earliest examples of its style in the country. A Russian Imperial Stout, Expedition dwarfs all previous stouts in terms of ABV (10.5%) and intensity of flavor. Expedition is a blend of intense roasted malt character, chocolate, black berries, raisins and warming alcohol. There’s even a distinct hop bitterness. Expedition is a world-class stout that would be at the apex of Bell’s stouts if it weren’t for one more.

Black Note Stout

The whale, although it appears to be getting easier to find. Prior to this year I had never been lucky enough to taste Black Note, let alone get a bottle or two. Part of this has to due with the random nature in which Black Note is released. There is no annual Black Friday release like Bourbon County. Black Note comes out when it is ready to. Bell’s does not announce the release date, it just shows up. There’s something refreshing about this as it keeps the professional whale hunters at bay and offers up the random chance you’ll stumble across a bottle because you just happened to be in the right shop on the right day.

I get the feeling there’s more Black Note being made these days as I found bottles for the first time ever in two separate stores this past November and December. And if that is the case, it’s great news for those that appreciate delicious barrel-aged beers.

A blend of Special Double Cream Stout and Expedition Stout that has been aged in bourbon barrels, Black Note Stout is at the pinnacle of Bell’s stoutdom. I split my first bottle with my brother during game night in December and then opened my second one this weekend. The last two will be reserved for future special occasions.

Black Note takes everything that is so great about its two component beers and then adds a layer of delicious vanilla and oak character from the whiskey barrels. It is a singular expression of dark chocolate, espresso, dried dark fruits and velvety smooth body that has been elevated to incredible heights. Your journey through the pantheon of Bell’s stouts is not complete until you have experienced Black Note. Keep your eyes peeled on the forums for any leaks in release dates and then pray you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Or that a whole lot more Black Note hits the pipeline. And if that makes it lose its cache with the whale hunters, that just means more amazing beer for the rest of us to drink.

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