Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout

Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
Chippewa Falls, WI

Style: Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.5%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

I have to say, I was a little reluctant to review the second release in the special edition Big Eddy series from Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., a 140-year old Wisconsin brewing institution that is based (technically, at least) in the small northern town of Chippewa Falls. This may seem odd given that the reviews for the first brew in the series, Big Eddy Imperial IPA, were absolutely phenomenal (including two from senior review correspondents Jug Dunnigan and Franz Mueller). The release of Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout was as widely anticipated in the state of Wisconsin as was the NBA debut of the Milwaukee Bucks latest first round pick, Chinese super-stud Yi Jianlian. Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout (BERIS) was given a sneak-preview on tap at a select few state joints in October and the few reviews I read were extremely positive. After all, is there a better beer style out there than a well-made Russian imperial stout?

So, why the utter lack of enthusiasm on Nigel’s part to review what has the potential of being a euphoric beer drinking experience?

To put it simply, I hate what Leinie’s has become.

I’ve gone over this before in previous reviews, so I’ll try my best to summarize without too much repetition. As a Wisconsin native, Nigel grew up with Leinenkugel’s (figuratively, of course; I wasn’t drinking beer as a youngster, though many in this state do) and I respect its roots as a state institution. As the hundreds of local breweries disappeared in the later half of the 20th century, Leinenkugel’s was able to maintain and survive. Filling a gap left by defunct regional brewers in places like Appleton, Eau Claire, Green Bay, LaCrosse, Oshkosh, Potosi, and Sheboygan (as well as the near-death of Milwaukee as a national brewing mecca), Leinenkugel’s, along with Stevens Point and Monroe's Huber, remained a prominent reminder of a great state tradition. As the craft beer boom brought a resurgence to the small, locally-owned breweries in the late 1980s and 1990s, Leinie’s successfully latched onto this movement, gradually increasing their lineup to include a number of craft offerings, some of which still remain.

Having successfully survived the trying times of the late 20th century and emerging bigger and stronger than ever, Leinenkugel’s did the inexplicable: they sold their souls to the devil. Sure, there was only so much you could do at the old brewery in Chippewa Falls, but Leinie’s didn’t contract brew in places like LaCrosse or Monroe, where ample brewing capacities were waiting to be tapped. No, sir. They sold their family-owned brand name and all the brews that came along with it to the wonderful folks at Miller Brewing Company, the second-largest brewer in the nation. Subsequently, Miller was sold to SAB (South Africa Brewing), a London-based global brewing conglomerate which is now known as SAB-Miller. Along with cohorts Anheuser-Busch and Molson-Coors, SAB-Miller is working to destroy the good beer movement in the United States.

Yes folks, this seemingly rustic, down-home, small-town Northwoods brewery is a fully owned subsidiary of Miller Brewing, made in the same building in Milwaukee as you would find other fine craft offerings like Miller Lite, Milwaukee’s Best, and Mickey’s. Leinenkugel’s has thus far helped Miller in its crusade to end good beer by eliminating some of their better craft offerings like Northwoods Lager and Bock, replacing it with god-awful, kitschy brews like Summer Shandy, Apple Spice, and Sunset Wheat. While Sunset Wheat is at least somewhat drinkable, the other two are clearly marketed to the masses that have the beer IQ of a pregnant rhinoceros. I HATE what’s happened to this old Wisconsin tradition, and I urge any beer dork out there to avoid Leinie’s if at all possible, since every bottle or pint purchased is going to help line the corporate coffers at SAB Miller.

That having been said, I couldn’t resist sampling the latest Big Eddy release (yes, Nigel is a hypocrite), given all the hype and favorable reviews surrounding it. I’m not sure where the idea for the Big Eddy series came from, but it’s one of the few things Leinenkugel’s has done since their merger with Miller that is positive. Whether the directive came from Leinie’s or Miller, and regardless of where it’s brewed (Chippewa Falls or Milwaukee), clearly somebody decided it’s time to make good, ballsy craft beer that may not be appealing to ignorant beer-drinking masses that gulp down unrecognizable swill like Apple Spice, but will raise the credibility of the Leinenkugel’s name in the eyes of beer connoisseurs. Like the Imperial IPA before it, BERIS is a great attempt at a powerful, unique, hard-to-make style that will leave any beer drinker salivating, regardless of how you feel about the course the brewery has undertaken in the past decade.

The Big Eddy name refers to the pure natural spring in the heart of Chippewa Falls that the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery was built on in 1867 (I know this because they were kind enough to put the story on the package, as well as a nice, brief history of the Russian imperial stout and a description of the beer). Let’s hope they still brew this there rather than at Miller, which gets its water from the cesspools feeding Lake Michigan. BERIS claims to use a selection of 11 malts and grains, along with three different types of hops.

BERIS pours well for a Russian imperial: that is, it looks like used motor oil, with a small, dark tan fizz on the pour that evaporates instantly, leaving only the slightest of traces at the side of the glass. Not the most attractive or lively brew you’re ever going to see, but that’s the way it should be. The smell is both powerful and pleasing. Strong aromas of chocolate, coffee, fruit, malt (both sugary sweet and roasted), and hops make for a fragrant orgy that is second to none. A tinge of alcohol is also detectable, not surprising given the style and high (9.5 percent) abv.

The flavor is fantastic. If made properly, it’s hard to top the cascade of flavors that rush at you from all angles in a Russian imperial stout. As was stated previously, Leinie’s uses a variety of 11 malts and grains, capturing about every flavor possible in the earthy spectrum. A thick, somewhat syrupy brew, the first flavor is both dark roasted malts and chocolate. After that, a sweeter, sugary flavor of caramel, molasses, and toffee comes through, along with another sweet tinge of fruit. A nice touch of hoppy bitterness comes through at the end (I'm tasting Northwest hops, but it's hard to tell for sure with all the maltiness), along with a manageable alcoholic zip that is typical in an RIS. A full bodied, thick brew (though not the thickest Russian imperial I’ve ever had), Big Eddy truly is a fine craft offering, though unfortunately from a corporate giant. It’s big, it’s complex, and it’s damn good.

My suggestion: give it a try, but don’t be fooled. While the name Leinenkugel’s may make you feel as though you’re drinking another quality beer from a small Midwestern brewery, you’re not. SAB Miller is using the name to get in on the rapidly growing craft beer trend, much like A-B’s Green Valley name and Molson-Coors Blue Moon (this also helps to offset the continued lagging sales of macro-brew staples). Buying “craft” offerings from these brewers, regardless of how good they taste, in fact damages the craft beer industry, which is already facing a minor crisis due to rising grain and hops prices. It’s up to the individual beer drinker to form their own opinion on the pros and cons of drinking corporate brews such as Leinie’s, but I for one try to avoid them when at all possible, even when they are as high quality as Big Eddy’s Russian Imperial Stout.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on November 14, 2007.
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