Garrett Oliver on the 21st Birthday of Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout

We chatted with Brooklyn Brewery’s inimitable brewmaster about creating the imperial stout, why it’s built to age and what’s currently in his beer cellar.

As part of New York City Beer Week, Brooklyn Brewery will celebrate the 21st birthday of Black Chocolate Stout, one of its most acclaimed beers, with a highly unique (and free) party on Monday, February 22 offering a tasting of ten different vintages. We chatted with Brooklyn Brewery’s inimitable brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, about creating the imperial stout, why it’s built to age and what’s currently in his beer cellar.

Edible Brooklyn: Black Chocolate Stout was your “audition” to join Brooklyn Brewery. What do you remember about it?
Garrett Oliver: Well, I was looking to leave Manhattan Brewing Company after I discovered that the owner had cancelled all the employees’ health insurance without telling them. I wanted to buy out Manhattan Brewing, but Steve Hindy [Brooklyn Brewery’s co-founder and chairman] wanted me to come on board. So on July 4, 1994, when Manhattan was closed for the holiday, I went in and brewed a version of Black Chocolate Stout. When I brought the beer to Steve three weeks later, he said, “Come on, we have to brew this!” And we were off and running.

EB: What inspired you to create the recipe?
GO: There were only a few imperial stouts being sold in the country at the time, and I think only two in the city: Sam Smith’s and Bert Grant’s. Brooklyn Brewery sold both of those beers as a wholesaler, so we knew that the beers were loved. But their sales were small. The amount of Black Chocolate Stout that we brewed in 1994, the first year, dwarfed all the sales for imperial stout in the Northeast. It totally sold out in two weeks.

EB: Has the recipe changed over the years?
GO: Not really, no. We’ve made minor tweaks to accommodate changes in grain and hops, but all the essentials are exactly what they always were.

EB: Why do consider Black Chocolate Stout built to age?
GO: I think it’s a matter of balance and concentration. At 10 percent ABV, it has plenty of heft, and it’s that center that’s going to provide the “fuel” for future changes. If the core is thin, the beer eventually just falls apart. Also, it has a lot of bitterness—both roast bitterness and hop bitterness—balanced against not-too-much residual sweetness. For a beer that’s going to age well, these are qualities you want.

EB: What changes occur as the beer ages?
GO: First, the sharp elbows calm down. BCS is pretty rambunctious when it’s young, and frankly I like it that way too. It’s sharp, boozy, spiky and more coffee-like than chocolaty. But even a few months in, things begin to soften. The booziness fades, the bitterness gets less angular, and chocolate notes start to step forward. Over many years you get Madeira, sherry, leather and all sorts of complex flavors… from soy sauce to licorice. It’s fascinating.

EB: Do you have a favorite vintage?
GO: It’s very hard to say, but last week I was pouring 2004 in the UK and it was tasting awesome.

EB: Brooklyn has obviously made a point to cellar some Black Chocolate Stout over the years. How much is usually set aside each/every year?
GO: Usually a pallet or two. Funny: The first year we had to go out into the market and buy the beer back at retail so that we’d have it for our beer dinners. We learned our lesson, believe me.

EB: After more than 20 years of the beer, what are you most proud about it?
GO: Many people don’t realize that aging beer isn’t even a vaguely new concept. If you read any brewing book from the 1800s, there’s going to be a section on how to age special beers in oak for years. I’m proud to have been part of the renaissance of that, of an important part of the beer culture.

EB: What’s currently in your cellar that you’re excited to drink?
GO: I have some vintages of Thomas Hardy’s from the ’80s that are just waiting for the right people and occasion. They can be spectacular.

EB: At the event, each vintage will be paired with a year-spanning playlist. What song does Black Chocolate Stout bring to mind?
GO: Well, if it’s young Black Chocolate Stout, then it’s LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House.” But if it’s got a few years on it, it’s Barry White. Maybe “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything?”

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Niko Krommydas has written for Tasting Table, BeerAdvocate, Munchies, and First We Feast. He is editor of Craft Beer New York, an app for the iPhone, and a columnist for Yankee Brew News. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.