Thursday, November 11, 2010

Saranac Vanilla Stout

A few days ago I tried Saranac's Lake Effect Lager, and gave it a pretty favourable review.  I've got a few more beers in my collection from these guys and the review will be coming in over the next few days.

When you name a beer 'Vanilla Stout', it's different from a generic name like 'Lake Effect' or 'Highland' - the expected flavour is right there in the name.  And the name  is bound to raise a few eyebrows - Vanilla and Stout don't usually go together.

In case you were wondering, stout is the kind of beer that basically provides you with a meal in a glass - it's heavy, it's dark, it's thick and it fills your gut nicely.  Probably the most famous example is Guinness - the strong, toasty Irish beer which sells millions upon millions of units every year.

Combining that with vanilla seems like an odd move to me - I can see it being added to some ales or bitters, even porters, but stout seems like too strong a style to lend itself to vanilla flavours.  Upon trying Vanilla Stout, my suspicions were sadly confirmed.

My first impression, on a couple of mouthfuls, was that there was way too little vanilla in the aroma.  I could just about detect it - but it was so lost amid the hoppy aroma that I wondered for a moment if they'd mis-labelled the bottle.  The overall smell I got was the scent of a cold snowy day, with an undertone of hops.  It wasn't unpleasant, just unexpected.  It's got a suitably dark appearance, as one would expect from a stout, with a respectable head.

The taste is overpoweringly soapy, and rather bitter, with a very strong aftertaste of toasted barley.  I normally enjoy that, but add it to the bitter, malty, soapy taste and it's just a bit too much.  More than once I grimaced as I swallowed another mouthful - it became a bit of an endurance test to finish it.  Moreover, my drinking partner (who is also my biggest fan) couldn't face the whole glass and handed me hers to finish - this just added to the challenge.

One redeeming feature here was the brew's good, thick head - it had a creamy texture which was a pleasant surprise.  It contrasted nicely with the mouthfeel of the beer, which had some carbonation.

There's a problem I've routinely encountered with some craft beers - a pleasant malty flavour can become unpleasantly soapy if overdone.  Usually I've only encountered this problem with British ales, I think this is the first time I've had the problem this side of the pond.  It's a shame.

It's a stout, but may be too heavy to be enjoyable by most drinkers.  The 'vanilla' aspect seemed mostly absent, suppressed by the stout's strong hop and malt flavours.  I didn't enjoy it, and it seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

2 out of 5.


  1. Did it have vanilla added at all, or did it just acquire that name by virtue of having a natural vanilla-eyness to it?

    I often find that gimmick beers with added flavours often end up tasting soapy as you describe.

  2. That's a good point, Jim - I had assumed that there was vanilla added in the fermentation, just like people add oysters to Oyster Stout, bananas to Banana Bread beer, and so on. If there was intended to be just a natural vanilla flavour, I wasn't picking it up very strongly.

    Thanks for stopping by - good to hear from you!