“I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again” – Bill Callahan, “Jim Cain”
Seven years ago, Phil Wymore and his wife Emily opened a brewery in St. Louis with the hopes of carving out a very particular niche.
“Back in 2011, there was a real void of producers making Belgian-style beer around here,” recalls the Perennial Artisan Ales co-founder, chatting over the phone from Missouri this past Valentine’s Day. “So, we wanted to make sessionable versions of Belgian beers. That was the initial idea, at least.”
Wymore had moved back to the Show Me State – where he went to college and kick-started his brewing career at a short-lived brewpub – after splitting a half-decade between two Chicago breweries of distinctly varying scales: the institutional Goose Island and an upstart called Half Acre. Soft-spoken and affable, the brewer helped get the latter operation off the ground in its inaugural year, constructing the first iterations of present-day staples like the hoppy pale ale Daisy Cutter and a 10% ABV coffee imperial stout dubbed Big Hugs.
Big, roasty beers like Big Hugs had been a significant part of Wymore’s repertoire at Goose Island, too. As cellar manager, he oversaw the brewery’s barrel-aging program, which notably included production of Goose Island’s most coveted release: Bourbon County Stout, a legendary imperial stout that is often credited with igniting America’s raging fascination with barrel-aged beers.
“I made a lot of Bourbon County at Goose Island – it’s a beer that I handled a lot, filling and racking out barrels,” says Wymore, who also notes a deeper impact that beer had on his approach to brewing. “It made me a little fearless in terms of making a beer that big. It’s not easy. It’s a pain in the ass to mill and mash all of that malt, and for all the ingredients that you’re putting in, you’re getting out relatively very little liquid. You have to let go of certain notions of efficiency and what you’re getting out of your cost of goods. After that, the handcuffs were off in terms of expectations or constraints. It was pretty liberating. There are a lot of people who seem to be afraid to go that big.”
But the idea of Perennial was not to go big – not at first. Brewed in an old Coca-Cola syrup plant not far from the Mississippi River, Wymore’s initial offerings were far more measured. His first foot forward was Hommel Bier, a Belgian pale ale inspired equally by the classic Poperings Hommel Bier and his own Daisy Cutter. This was joined by the Belgian-style blonde ale Southside Blonde. Saison de Lis, a saison steeped on chamomile, followed not long after.
“We still make all three of those beers, and I think they still serve the purpose of being light, everyday drinking beers that are Belgian-inspired, but I would definitely say that is not what we are known for now,” Wymore admits. “I’d say that Abraxas put us on the map, and then the different variations of stouts became what we’re most known for.”
First released in the fall of 2011, Abraxas irrevocably changed the trajectory of Perennial. Abraxas was big in every sense of the word, a viscous 10% ABV imperial stout brewed with a huge charge of oats and a dash of lactose milk sugar, then steeped on ancho chili peppers, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and cinnamon sticks. Wymore and then-head brewer Cory King didn’t invent this flavor profile – they acknowledge the influence of Cigar City’s Hunaphu’s, and the idea to even brew a Mexican chocolate stout initially came from a customer response to an early Perennial blog post – but Abraxas’s emphatic use of adjuncts in a somehow still balanced beer was revelatory.
“The first time I had Abraxas, I was shocked by the pure amount of cinnamon on the nose – it was very pleasant, but so unexpectedly massive,” says Ben Little, beer curator for Frederick’s White Rabbit Gastropub and the former head brewer of Manor Hill. “The chili peppers brought such a pleasing amount of heat and flavor. The cocoa nibs and vanilla brought out the chocolate and roast from the base beer, and everything melded perfectly. It’s just such a great experience – big and chewy, yet all too drinkable and satisfying.”
Abraxas immediately attracted a national following, much to the bemusement of Wymore, who couldn’t believe the response it was garnering on the nascent social media app Untappd.
“As a new brewery, in a landscape of 2500 or so craft breweries back in 2011, why would anyone know of us?” he says. “We had no track record. We were in the Midwest. It was like, ‘Wow, how the hell are people in Arizona and New York getting Abraxas?’ We weren’t really aware that there was a trade network going on and that a lot of the locals who were coming to get our beer – which was exciting enough – were shipping it to other people. That was a bit of a phenomenon for us.”
In early 2013, Perennial released a rye whiskey barrel-aged version of Abraxas, which only further stoked the flames. In D.C., Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director Greg Engert – an early supporter of Perennial and a friend of the Wymores – remembers the Monday night that he first tapped a keg of the beer at ChurchKey as part of an event with the brewery.
“Abraxas was on the up and up, and people were talking about it, but it wasn’t what it is now,” Engert shares. “We knew barrel-aged Abraxas would be good, but I can remember pouring some for our regulars early on in the shift, and all of us took a sip and looked at each other like, ‘Whoa. This is something that is just incredible.’ All the flavors were huge but balanced, which was incredible. We all just had a feeling that this was going to be one of the last times that we could drink this beer recklessly. And we did. We knew it was not going to be available in any volume. We knew it was going to be a cult beer.”
As the cult of Perennial imperial stouts grew, so did the variations of them. On St. Patrick’s Day 2012, the brewery first released 17, an imperial stout aged on cacao nibs and dried peppermint leaves – the liquid equivalent of an Andes Mint. A year later, it debuted the self-explanatory Sump Coffee Stout. The fall of 2014 brought Maman, an adjunct-free imperial stout aged 18-to-20 months in Rittenhouse Rye and Elijah Craig barrels. Somewhere along the way, a coffee-spiked Abraxas emerged, as did one-offs like a Pecan Pie Stout.
“Perennial has done a super job in cultivating its stout brands,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for the Meridian Pint group. “They’re stouts that the beer nerd community looks forward to every year, again and again, which is incredibly hard to accomplish in an industry with a very fickle consumer base. A lot of the time, you get a super big response year one and year two, and then it sort of dwindles; people move on to other stuff. But the beers that are truly great, people get excited about them, they stand the test of time.”
In 2018, Wymore estimates 25% of Perennial’s production will be dedicated to stouts – a remarkable number given the time and resources that goes into them, not to mention the brewery’s starting point.
“Perennial set out to be a Belgian brewery – that was going to be their thing,” Engert observes. “When you look at St. Louis, Schlafly was more of a classic microbrewery. You had Urban Chestnut doing German-style stuff. Civil Life was going for a British thing. It seemed like Perennial was going to be the Belgian brewer. But Phil creates this stout, and Perennial gets known for it, and it just kind of rolled on. I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re really good at doing a lot of things, you can be versatile and audible and change directions.”
Versatility is part of this story in another sense: From Abraxas to 17 to Sump Coffee Stout, Perennial’s imperial stouts have all shared the same base beer – something strong enough to stand up to whatever adjuncts Wymore and his team have thrown at it.
“You can tell they put a lot of work into establishing this base and how it would handle all these ingredients,” says Gonnerman. “The base is a compliment. It doesn’t lurk in the shadows, but at the same time, it lets those adjuncts do their thing. It’s sort of what every brewery dreams about, which is coming up with a base stout that you can replicate over and over and twist in different ways and barrel age and adjunct, and it just takes everything in stride. That’s not easy. At all. What they’ve done, and how they’ve be able to create all these amazing stouts off of it – it’s a big deal. It really is.”
A few weeks ago, Perennial introduced the latest entry in its series of imperial stouts: Prodigal. Over six years after the release of Abraxas, it’s a beer designed to pull back the curtain on the Mexican chocolate stout and its successors.
“The one thing we haven’t done is present the base itself,” says Wymore. “That’s the story of Prodigal.”
Perennial’s imperial stout base has long been a prized commodity within the walls of the St. Louis brewery.
In particular, there’s a point in the production of Abraxas, after primary fermentation but before the cinnamon and ancho chilies get added, when the liquid is ripe for the taking.
“That’s the perfect time for someone to steal some base stout and make some additions on the sly,” says Tim Doeschot, the man who filled Cory King’s shoes as head brewer at Perennial. “Everyone kind of gets the opportunity to throw some adjuncts on it and come up with a new recipe.”
Such experimentation is ingrained in Perennial’s culture: Since day one, the brewery has aimed to release a new beer in the tasting room every week.
“Cory left us, and other brewers are have left us, and we’ve had new brewers come on, and we’ve always encouraged everyone to express their creativity through this program,” Wymore shares. “A lot of ideas have been driven by it.”
It’s understandable, then, that when Wymore decided it was time to introduce a new imperial stout into the Perennial line-up, opinions were not scarce. Everyone is familiar with this base and had thoughts about where it could head next.
This conversation was prompted bittersweetly by the decision to retire 17 from the line-up of beers sent across Perennial’s distribution network. (Perennial is the model of a boutique brewery: Even though it plans to make only 5,000 barrels in 2018, its beer is spread strategically across over a dozen markets from coast to coast, including New York City, Chicago, and D.C.)
“As much as we loved 17, mint is kind of a polarizing ingredient – people either love it or hate it,” maligns Wymore, who goes onto to note that, like Vermilion and Heart of Gold, 17 will live on in its barrel-aged iteration. “The barleywine, the wheatwine, and 17 are all beers that we were really proud of, but at the end of the day, they didn’t sell as well as some other Perennial beers, so we were like, ‘You know, we’ll just make barrel-aged versions of them, because those do continue to sell well. We can still make those beers in some way, it’s just at a much lesser volume, and that’s fine.”
With 17 gone, the question became: What ingredients should supplant mint? Perennial employees floated a number of different concepts for “pastry stouts,” a blanket term covering desert-like, adjunct-heavy stouts. Maple was discussed. Someone suggested fenugreek, a spice popular in South Asian cooking. There was the idea of further imperializing Fantastic Voyage, an already 8.8% Perennial milk stout brewed with coconut and chocolate.
“What I love about working at Perennial is that we actually get together for company-wide meetings and flesh out who we are as a company and what we want to do,” says Doeschot, a five-year veteran of the company. “When we talked about moving a new imperial stout into the program, all of us brewers leaped on it and started thinking, ‘What kind of extravagant ingredients can we throw into this? What kind of new, crazy thing can we make?’ But what I got out of the meeting was that there was this great desire to step away from the huge, enormous flavors of Abraxas and Sump. People wanted to appreciate the stout in and of itself. I was kind of humbled that everyone believed in it enough to step back from this huge pastry stout thing we’ve created for ourselves.”
Perennial had already done this to certain degree with Maman – where the base stout spends almost two years in rye whiskey barrels – but many would argue that the oak character of the wood and the booze soaked into it are a kind of adjunct themselves. Prodigal would present the beer in its full, roasty glory – albeit, with a modest addition of cocoa nibs and vanilla beans to round out the rough edges.
“It’s something we’ve considered doing throughout years, and we just never got around to doing it,” says Wymore. “It was always an idea in our back pocket, like, ‘Hey, we could just release this beer as is.’ And we do treat it a little but with cocoa nibs and vanilla, but not enough to where it’s overtly either of those things.”
“What I love about this beer was that it wasn’t a singular thought,” adds Doeschot. “It wasn’t, like, one brewer coming up with this idea. We all looked at Maman and we kind of felt like the unstripped nature of the beer was more attractive than making another coconut beer or piling on more of another ingredient.”
It all sounds simple enough.
But there’s not much simple about making a beer like Prodigal.
Imperial stouts aren’t what they used to be.
Or so says Greg Engert. Over the past decade, the beer director has watched the style move in a direction that’s sweeter, softer, more accessible.
“You used to see people react negatively to some of the dry, roasted bitter characteristics that you find in old school imperial stouts,” Engert shares. “Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin, for example, is a burly beer. It’s chewy. It’s dense. There’s a drying character there that picks up on tannins. But newer imperial stouts have upped the oat content. They’ve sometimes upped the lactose content. Vanilla beans and cocoa nibs have become de rigueur. All of the things lend a soft, creamy sweetness to a beer and make them, frankly, more mainstream. Pastry stouts are not burly. They’re sweet and approachable. A lot of people like them.”
Abraxas arrived in the early years of this softening, and its construction – and therefore that of Prodigal’s – reflects many of those trends. As with all beers, everything starts with the grist.
“It’s essentially a huge oatmeal stout, so it has an enormous heap of rolled oats in there,” says Doeschot. “We typically use only a small amount of roasted barley so as to not add too much of a roasted character to it, but we use a black patent malt and a ton of debittered specialty malts to keep the roast character down and give it more of chocolatey edge. There’s a wide myriad of malts in there, and I’d say they definitely all have a contributing factor – that’s where we get most of the flavor.”
Perennial’s imperial stouts are boiled – with a small amount of brown sugar to dry the beer out – for an extravagant four hours. As more liquid evaporates, what’s left behind is a concentrated, viscous wort, which combined with the oat content, lends the beer its luscious mouthfeel.
“They have a big, rich, thick mouthfeel – probably bigger than the 10% ABV would suggest,” observes Gonnerman. “10%, is certainly big, but when you look at Avery and Aslin making stouts 15%, 17%, and above, it’s not huge, yet Perennial is still getting all of this incredible mouthfeel and all of this incredible flavor out of a beer, and that long boil is part of the reason why.”
The loss that comes with such a long boil is significant. Two turns of the Perennial’s 15-barrel brewhouse ultimately result in a 15-barrel batch – meaning, half of the initial liquid never makes it into the fermenter. (This helps explain why a 750mL bottle of Prodigal is likely to run you in the range of $20.)
After the beer reaches the fermenter, it’s treated like any other ale, spending a few weeks in the tank before being cold crashed, then steeped on any adjuncts for another week.
The decision to condition the base beer on cocoa nibs and vanilla beans for Prodigal, however mildly, was viewed as one of the necessity.
“To me, the base beer on its own has a little bit of a rough edge to it, despite the fact that it has lactose sugar and oats and all of these other things that give it great mouthfeel,” says Wymore. “It can have a little bit of alcohol. It can be a little bit higher in esters from the violent fermentation – there’s so much sugar being consumed and so much alcohol being produced in a very rapid way. So, we wanted to round it out, and vanilla is great for rounding things. That’s why bakers use it for all kinds of things. It kind of takes some of the harshness of the beer, but we’re admittedly pretty sensitive to things being really smooth.”
From the outside perspective of Engert – who’s overseen Bluejacket’s direction since the D.C. brewery opened, including the production of its own Mexican chocolate stout, Mexican Radio – the addition of vanilla and cocoa nibs only makes sense.
“I wasn’t too surprised to see Prodigal is not simply a base beer,” he explains. “That beer was initially designed to take on other flavors. I’d imagine that would involve intensifying other flavors in the base beer, knowing that they would then have to stand up to large additions of chili peppers and vanilla and cocoa beans plus cinnamon and coffee. If you took a perfectly well-crafted, round, nuanced imperial stout and buried it in adjuncts, you might end up with something where the base is overshadowed. I think Phil has been very smart about building a beer that is perfect for the adjunct additions, and that takes a supreme talent.”
Striking the right balance of vanilla and chocolate in Prodigal fell to Doeschot, albeit with a lot of help.
“Phil likes to call me the head brewer, and that’s great – it definitely let’s my head swell – but it’s more than him and me fleshing out those ideas,” the brewer shares, taking a break from the production floor. “We got together with all of the brewers, and we really honed in on how much nibs and vanilla we wanted to add. We wanted to increase the sweetness a little, but we didn’t want to take away from the base stout. I’m really proud of what we’ve created.”
With a roastier, boozier character than Abraxas and Sump, Prodigal falls somewhere between classic imperial stouts like Bell’s Expedition and North Coast’s Old Rasputin on one hand, and modern sweet American stouts that lean on lactose milk sugar, vanilla, and chocolate.
“It’s a huge, enormous expressive stout,” the head brewer says. “I think the roastiness is right where it needs to be, without it being overly drying and bitter on the tongue. The only difference between Prodigal and Maman is that Maman gets the barrel character and the age to it, as well. I’d say that they’re very closely tied, and I like drinking them side by side, for sure.”
While certain beer styles and production techniques have evolved rapidly over the course of the past seven years, not much has changed about the way that Perennial makes an imperial stout. Yes, the brewery installed a new brewhouse two years ago (which necessitated some scaling up), and at some point Wymore and his team made the decision to remove malt extract from the recipe (making life harder for brewers but giving them more control over the beer), but otherwise the base stout is the same as it’s always been. When it comes to Abraxas and Sump Coffee Stout and 17, Perennial’s philosophy, according to Wymore, has been if isn’t broke, why fix it?
From a business perspective, Perennial’s approach to the style can also be viewed through this prism: People continue to covet its imperial stouts, so it continues to brew new ones, such Prodigal or the recent Jester King collaboration Til’ the Night Closes In. If it isn’t broke…
“When you produce something like Abraxas, and people seem to really, really enjoy it, then I think you have to listen to the market and say, ‘Clearly, they like this. I’m going to make some more of this,’” shares Wymore. “Our mantra has always been: Give the people what they want, so long as you’re proud of it. If we were really popular for something we didn’t stand behind, I think we’d have some questions about whether or not we should make it. Likewise, if we make a bunch of brown ale, and we’re proud of it, but no one buys it, we’re probably not going to make it again.”
Does Wymore ever wonder why imperial stouts have grabbed the attention – and wallets – of craft beer drinkers so forcefully?
“I ask myself that question all the time,” the co-founder admits with a hearty laugh. “I wish I had the answer. I kind of get the whole ‘big beer’ thing – people aren’t afraid of high alcohol, and they especially seem to be happy with something if it’s hard to make and thus limited in quantity, but I don’t know why it’s stout over barleywine and wheatwine. I guess there’s just something less sexy about those styles that I don’t really understand, because I personally enjoy them just as much if not more than stout. But people other than me buy my beer.”
According to Engert, the allure of imperial stouts boils down – at least in part – to the intensity of these beers.
“Barrel-aged and adjunct stouts showcase loads of flavor and aroma and incredibly impressive mouthfeels,” the beer buyer observers. “I’m not saying they’re not complex, but they’re definitely not subtle. They’re hard to overlook. You can’t deny their impact. There’s a reason why people drink big, huge California cabernets: People like powerful beverages. There’s a scarcity factor, too, because they’re expensive and oftentimes time-consuming to make. If you’re dumping tons of exorbitantly priced Madagascar vanilla beans into a drink, you’re going to by necessity make less of it, and then you’re going to charge more because it costs more to make. So, you have something that expensive and scarce and hugely flavorful on the palate – that’s a recipe for interest.”
Nowadays, such logic is ingrained in the mentality of many newer breweries, but when Abraxas debuted in six-and-a-half years ago, its success – let alone a cult following – was hardly a fait accompli.
“When you first open, you kind of throw things out there that speak to you, and you hope that people enjoy them,” says Wymore. “2011 was different from 2018 – it felt like a new frontier. People were just starting to line up for beer releases and limited things. Now, it’s a totally different landscape.”
As Engert keenly observes, Perennial was more than a bystander to this sea change.
“As much as Perennial has benefited from the popularity stouts, they’ve clearly been 100% tied up with making stouts as popular as they are,” says Engert. “It’s kind of the chicken or the egg thing: They were organically growing the popularity of these beers as they were responding to the popularity of them.”
Of course, even if the average craft consumer’s first association with the St. Louis brewery is its stouts, there’s still the remaining three-quarters of Perennial’s output, most of which exists far away from descriptors like “big” and “roasty.”
“Stouts are not all of what we do,” says Wymore. “We’re really proud of the kettle sour beers that we do, like Hopfentea and Suburban Beverage. We’re also really proud of the wood-aged, mixed fermentation beer that we do and the fruited variations of those. Our identity now is really the original Belgian-style ales; the wood-aged, mixed-fermentation, and sour beers; stouts, both barrel-aged and non-barrel-aged; and, I think we’re coming up with IPAs pretty well, too.”
Many of these beers will get a boost in accessibility this year when Perennial begins putting its kettle sours and “clean” saisons (like Saison de Lis and a forthcoming series of dry-hopped saisons called Prism) into cans and shipping them around the country for the first time. (Its IPAs, the only Perennial beers to have previously been canned, will remain exclusive to the brewery.) Meanwhile, bigger and barrelled releases will stay in 750mL bottles, while the wonderful ongoing Brett saison series will migrate to 375mL vessels starting with Distant Land later this spring.
Prodigal, which was released at the brewery in February, is currently making its way through Perennial’s wide distribution network. It’s sure not to linger.
“It’s an honor to have people like anything that you make, but to have so much enthusiasm behind our stouts is really flattering,” says Wymore. “We feel very lucky to have that.”
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