One of the earliest examples of the Russian Imperial Stout in the United States, Expedition Stout offers immensely complex flavors crafted specifically with vintage aging in mind, as its profile will continue to mature and develop over the years. A huge malt body is matched to a heady blend of chocolate, dark fruits, and other aromas. Intensely bitter in its early months, the flavors will slowly meld and grow in depth as the beer ages.
Karl: After the Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 5-year vertical, drinking a few bottles of Bell’s felt like returning to familiar ground. At least, it did until we found just how varied five years of a RIS could really be. The flavors rose and fell, ebbed and flowed, hit highs and lows not often seen by a vertical like this. It was fun. You should try it some time.
As always, we start from the oldest beers, beginning with…
— 2009 —
Karl: There’s a difference between tasting “aged” and tasting “old.” This beer, for me, fell into the “old” category. Musty, salty, savory, dry, meaty, a little roasty and tons of raisin flavor — and in spite of all that, I still liked it. Can you believe it? There was still something sharp in there for just a second, like a flash of aggression before dropping back into the darker, rougher stew of flavors.
This beer fades quick, too — not quite “blink and you’ll miss it” fast, but it does drop off pretty rapidly. Strangely, I noticed that this beer held onto its head and lacing longer than any of the rest. Why? No idea. Worth noting? Sure!
Ryan: Odd. I didn’t find this beer to be “old” in any sense. Aged? Yes, but certainly not old.
The flavors of a five-year-old Bell’s Expedition Stout were well-rounded. A creamy body showed off flavors of chocolate malt drank through a straw followed by a handful of Milk Duds tossed into your mouth. There was a touch of cola too. The finish was heavy on the coffee and a bit frothy too.
Overall the oldest bottle held up well in the cellar.
— 2010 —
K: Man, what the hell happened this year?
All the complexity we noted in the 2009 just flat-out disappears in the 2010. Like, gone. My notes read, “I don’t know what’s going on here. Just weird. Everything just disappears.” Thinner bodied, no head, absent flavor. I can’t say that this was like drinking water, but after the rush of flavor from the 2009 and the upswing in taste in the 2011, where did this one go? Blocked out, covered up, just unsubstantial compared to the others. Where’d it go, Bell’s? Did you guys do something different this year?
R: I noticed something a bit different too, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. I didn’t think it was absent of flavor but the flavors it did have were a tad off-putting.
The chocolate was more pronounced and the coffee flavors leaned towards espresso. There was some dark chocolate in the finish too but the overall complexity we noticed in the 2009 pour was lost in the 2010.
— 2011 —
K: We’re back on more familiar territory with the 2011, I’m happy to report.
Way better than the 2010, this year’s beer ups the “roast” factor, along with the chocolate flavor and comes together to make a nice happy middle ground of sweet, savory, roasty, chocolatey and only a hint of medicinal off-flavors to hint that anything untoward is going on here.
R: The 2011 was very solid and, as I noted, “Perfectly balanced.”
If you’ve drank a fresh Bell’s Expedition Stout then you know this is a fairly hop-forward Russian Imperial Stout. This is the first glimpse we’ve gotten of those hops; coming by way of some spearmint up front and mint chocolate chip ice cream in the finish.
The chocolate and coffee flavors in the two previous versions blended seamlessly together. This may have been the best pour of the bunch.
— 2012 —
K: Even more than 2011, we’re back into more typical RIS area, with a substantially larger body than previous years. Creamy, almost sticky, and a little chewy, it’s refreshing to drink a beer that’s actually got some heft in comparison to older years. Fresh fruit, figs, plums, and just plain newer flavors encompass this beer — but not quite new enough in comparison to the 2013. The hops are dying in a way that’s not entire pleasant, so I’m plenty happy to move on to the brand-new Bells.
R: The hop-presence is certainly more aggressive with this bottle, somewhat overshadowing some of the other flavors. There is definitely some heft too, a reminder of how imposing a fresh bottle of Bell’s Expedition Stout can be.
Dark fruits abound as does a rich milk chocolatey-ness.
— 2013 —
K: First line of my notes reads: “This is great.” This beer is a beautiful bouquet of spices, almost like a Christmas Ale ported into a RIS. I dig it. A lot. Maybe it’s because these flavors aren’t apparent at all in any of the older beers and I’m just getting a fresh dose of newness and brightness, but there’s no way around it — I just plain ol’ like this beer.
Syrupy, cola-like flavors verging into Dr. Pepper territory complement the slightest touch of herbal bitterness, like aperol, or fernet, or even vinegar. The aroma is great, also smelling like Xmas — can we just call this a Xmas stout and be happy with it?
R: The fresh pour is full-bore Bell’s Expedition Stout; blisteringly hoppy with deep and vibrant flavors of cocoa nibs and vanilla beans.
I used to recoil a bit when drinking this beer fresh because of how aggressive it seemed. But drinking my way through five years worth of Bell’s Expedition Stout has given me a new appreciation for how good this beer really can be fresh.
— Overall —
K: I’m obviously a fan of the newest offerings, though this multi-year expedition (get it?) produced some real interesting peaks and valleys. Based on our major difference in opinion on the five year, I’m interested to see where this ends up after a full decade. I don’t know if I’ll ever exactly crave this particular stout, it did showcase — dramatically, in some senses — just how much time can affect a beer from year to year.
R: This was a nice change of pace; having a vertical of a Russian Imperial Stout with some stark contrasts — some ups and downs. While Bell’s Expedition Stout may not be as easily approachable in terms of price point as the Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, it certainly is out there and would be a great starter vertical for those who want to give it a try.
I did hold a bottle of each back and will be building up a ten-year vertical in the coming years. While there certainly was some decline between a five-year-old bottle and a fresh one, I do think Bell’s Expedition Stout could hold up to a few more years in the cellar.