Summary: A batch of 5 big beers [yes, BIG] from Belgium, the UK and US. They occupy places 20 to 16 in the reviews of my best beers of 2013.
Right then, here’s 5 more leading beers of 2013, some cracking ales to grab your attention. Today’s theme is by fluke rather than design and contains a set of bold, full-bodied and full-flavoured beers that would rate 6.0-6.9 on a seismometer, i.e. strong! Sip slowly them with respect and they’ll play nicely in return.
20. Thornbridge ‘Imperial Oatmeal Stout’ [11%]
- Style: Russian Imperial Stout
- When and how: On keg in ‘Pivni’s‘, York, February.
- Colour: A brooding black beastie with a dense tan head.
- Aroma: Rich and expansive! Large roasted malts tempered by dark berries and hedgerow fruits. Sweet caramel-toffee nuttiness, vanilla and oak, even shortbread join in. Toned down bourbon character  and alcoholic heat and siamese-twinned choc and coffee that binds everything together. And this magic all appears before you take the first sip should you dare do so!
- Taste: Starts with sweet liquorice and dark, plummy fruits, before subtle bourbon and port-like booze take over. Slightly charred bitter chocolate and mild espresso coffee bring up the rear with toffee, nut and vanilla notes. It’s complex and you keep on sipping just to find out what will revealed itself next.
- Body and finish: Creamy and full bodied, medium carbonation  with more booze in proportion than dominant. Dry finish with a warm alcohol glow. Worth every penny! 
This highly decorated brewery is one of the leading lights of the modern UK brewing revolution and has racked up 350 national and international awards in the 9 years since their inception. From the outside, the original base of operations, Thornbridge Hall, looks like a building from the mid-1800s and much of it is! No fakery here. The brewery expanded so quickly that most of their production already takes place at another site but The Hall still acts as the base for their experimentation with barrel-aged beers, sours and forays into new recipes. Its yesteryear exterior is the opposite of the ultra modern lab run inside by qualified food technologists who gazes into the future to keep the brewery well ahead of their rivals.
Thornbridge quickly gained a reputation for their exciting blends of multiple malts and hops which explains why they been sought to take part in international collabs such as the recent ‘Colorado Red’ with Odells from the US. Their hop focus is unashamedly English though they embellish homages to European beers with European hops [for instance, ‘Tzara’ is Kölsch/Köln-style, ‘Otto’ a Weizen Doppelbock and ‘Kill Your Darlings’ a Vienna-style lager] and southern hemisphere hops sometimes sneak into the range now and then.
What else should you try by them? Top recommendation is brilliantly spicy, hoppy and dry IPA ‘Jaipur’ and a perfect complement to a good curry. Beyond this reach for ‘St. Petersburg’ if you like rich, deep, stouts, or ‘Kipling’ if you like the sound of a beautifully floral-sweet Nelson Sauvin hopped Pacific Pale Ale. ‘Baize’ was a jaw-dropping experimental mint chocolate stout that evoked memories of dark after-dinner mint confectionery but sadly done as one-off. We should open an online petition about that!
To sum up, the Thornbridge credo is … “Innovation, Passion and Knowledge”.
19. Great Heck ‘Yakima IPA’ [7.4%] – aka ‘The Yak’
- Style: IPA/DIPA
- When and how: Last July on draught in the ‘North Riding Brewpub‘. Great Heck have taken this bevvy a step further and produce an even better, bottled version. I know, this notion will shock some. 
- Colour: Deep burnt orange with a white head in a hurry to disappear.
- Aroma: Huge juicy, sharp tropical grapefruit, mango sweetness, strong pine hop resins, rounded and full, sweet malt. Intense!
- Taste: Robust, sweet and silky caramel-toffee assails your senses before the flavour crescendos into grapefruit and spicy hop.
- Body and finish: Low to medium body and minimal carbonation – its liquid sways like wine. Ends with bags of caramalts and sacks of hops similar to a US DIPA. Muted alcoholic underlay, punchy bitter exclamation mark ending. Thereafter, the residual flavour lasts long after the mouthful has gone. Maximum drinkability at 7.4%.
It’s no coincidence another Great Heck brew made it into this list. Read more here about black IPA gem ‘Black Jesus’ at #30 and about the brewery because you need to try their ales and simply must track down ‘The Yak’.
18. The Musketeers ‘Troubadour Westkust’ [9.2%]
- Style: Black [Imperial?] IPA 
- When and how: Early last October, on draught at ‘Den Billenkletser‘, Antwerp.
- Colour: Dark chocolate-brown with a pale beige head that left decent lacing.
- Aroma: Big malt roast, toasted biscuits and freshly baked bread – ample yeast too. Accompanied by restrained espresso coffee, chocolate and spicy/sweet liquorice before an echo of citrus and earthy hop perfume, and a final snifter of alcohol.
- Taste: Unlike British and US black IPAs that seduce you first with their hop character before treating you to their darker side, this one flips the order around. Roasted, burnt malt, sweeter caramel and dark fruits precede the fresh, hoppy tropicals which add a complementary bitter, if muted, hop.
- Body and finish: Medium and slick body, light carbonation. The ‘darker side’ shows through but doesn’t overpower the delicate hop which is surprisingly refreshing. Slight bitter after-taste, lingering, alcoholic coffee-choc finish which builds to delightful, fragrant citrus and light dryness at the end.
Swashbucklers, firebrands and noisy upstarts. I’m sure these guys hanker for such labels to enhance their growing image of being Belgian brewing punks. Troubadour/The Musketeers are still small and use the kit at Proef, but in time their use of New World hops, dabblings in barrel-ageing and commitment to develop individual recipes will give them the necessary uplift to set up their own brewery.
It’s worth looking out for mild and milky stout ‘Obscura’ and bitter, fruity hop IPA ‘Magma’. Thanks yet again to the ‘Oud Arsenaal‘ in Antwerp for stocking these and to Belgian beer bar ‘Lowlander‘ near Covent Garden in London for serving draught ‘Magma’ on our last visit. En garde!
17. Stone ‘Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale’ [7.2%]
- Style: Strong ale
- When and how: At home on the last day of October from a bottle bought from the splendid ‘The House of Trembling Madness‘, York.
- Colour: Deep ruby, russet colour with a strong ivory head.
- Aroma: Crisp, youthful, hop spruce and piney resin shine through, pronounced sweet malty backbone and vanilla oak barrel shine through. After that, take your pick from a mix of fruits [fig, raisin, grapefruit], toffee, molasses, brown sugar and faint smoke.
- Taste: Welcoming sweet malt, caramel, toasted nuts, brown sugar and vanilla before fresh, grassy, herbal hop. Faintly warming alcohol and oak blend with dark fruits and toffee. [the oak flavour comes from fresh oak wood chips added to the ageing tanks]
- Body and finish: Smooth, vinous mouthfeel with a medium body, grapefruit citrus bitterness at the end. I was genuinely sad to finish this, even more so when the realisation struck me it might be a long time before I find it again to stock up on a few … or two … or three.
Stone’s reputation and craft credentials wrap around the world several times. Hop-heads love them for their highly hopped ales but there’s more to them than that, though as a UK beer consumer wanting to put this theory to the test, sourcing Stone beers is not that straight-forward. Just keep your eyes open when you pop into a quality beer shop or off-mainstream bar – they are out there. For instance, I chanced across ‘Old Guardian’ barley wine, standard and smoked, in Brewdog, Manchester, and snapped them up before someone else stampeded me at the bar for them. Yes, their ‘Pale Ale’ is a benchmark for US pales but the ‘Oaked Bastard'[dy One] put this brewery well and truly on my mental beer map.
16. Malheur ‘Dark Brut’ [12%] 
- Style: Méthode champenoise 
- When and how: From a 75cl at Zythos Beer Festival, Leuven, in April.
- Colour: Darkened ruby-red tinged caramel topped with a tan head.
- Aroma: The interplay of dark chocolate malts and ripe, dark cherried hop fruit are prominent from a distance. Add in spicy, yeast, caramelised, Demerara sugars, molasses and well-hidden alcohol, the overall fragrance is wonderfully big while simultaneously feather-light.
- Taste: Sweet milky cocoa comes through immediately and ebbs as away leaving behind bitter dark chocolate, strong coffee and more dark cherries [even cranberries?]. Then breadiness, caramel, toffee and hazelnuts feature as the flavour blossoms into a perfectly balanced bittersweet dance.
- Body and finish: Stimulating, spritzy, effervescent carbonation fosters a creamy, light mouthfeel with sweetness and dry acidity. Glorious ending of more chocolate, a bit of vanilla, a touch of caramel, and finally sherry oxidation. This exquisite creation really is a champagne beer and a labour of love. 
Malheur translates as ‘misfortune’, something you will thankfully not succumb to if you try this beer. ZBF served another méthode champenoise brew by Malheur we tried called ‘Cuvée Royale’; it was creamier but sadly a much less expressive beverage in every way. Don’t misinterpret me, the ‘Cuvée’ was enjoyable but the standard of ‘Dark Brut’ was stratospherically high. I bought a 75cl bottle of the ‘Brut’ at the Malheur stand for €10, a price considerably less than any customer would pay in the UK, which I consider most fortunate!
Phew, what a batch and not a shy one among them. Have fun finding them and even more enjoyment trying them … though probably not all on the same evening. Until next time.
 The beer ages in Kentucky Bourbon barrels for six months.
 Champagne yeast encourages bottling conditioning.
 This rare treat cost £4.50 for one-third of a pint.
 Great Heck head brewer Denzil, thinks the bottled version is an improvement and I’m not going to argue.
 There’s a confusing trend to label strong ABV beers with the ‘Imperial’ moniker when its original use related to beers sent to the imperial courts of past Kings and Queens, e.g. Russian Imperial Stouts.
 Called ‘Black Chocolate’ in the USA.
 Made by employing classic champagne production techniques like riddling and yeast disgorgement.
 Forgive me for the strange analogy, but ‘Dark Brut’ reminds me of the ‘loudness war‘ effect in music being overcome by common sense. Namely, Steve Wilson, lead singer and guitarist of the band Porcupine Tree, mentioned once considering placing the following message on the sleeves of one of the band’s albums:
“Please note that this record may not be mastered as loudly as some of the other records in your collection. This is in order to retain the dynamic range and subtlety of the music. Please, use your volume knob.”
Dynamic range and subtlety are at the core of the masterly ‘Dark Brut’ – its huge flavours played out so delicately – which proves you can achieve depth of flavour with lightness of touch.