Southern Tier says:
“Warlock is brewed to enchant your palate on its own and also to counterpoint our Imperial Ale, Pumking. Make your own black magic by carefully pouring this Imperial Stout into a goblet. Dark and mysterious, the Blackwater Series is serious about high gravity. Reanimate your senses with Warlock’s huge roasted malt character, moderate carbonation and spicy pumpkin pie aroma.”
Southern Tier Warlock
Imperial Stout, 8.6% ABV
The King’s thicker, heftier older brother, Warlock, has been around since last year but seems to have earned a higher profile this year. It made me wonder — since Pumking is thinner, lighter, less aromatic, less flavorful than years past, will Warlock scratch that pumpkin itch? Will this be the pumpkin ale of my seasonal dreams?
Well…it gets halfway there.
I’m still a defender of Pumpkin Beers as a style, though truth be told, I’m finding that defense harder and harder to make these days. Whether it can be chalked up to a changing palate, diminishing returns on the number of pumpkin ales to good pumpkin ales, a shallow but broad pool of options or just general fatigue, I’m either pickier or I’m just in the “been there done that mode”.
That said, I still like to think I can find the good in most any beer, and there was plenty of good to talk about in the Warlock. Part of my fatigue with pumpkin beers is that with only a few exceptions over the last few years, each beer was basically the same – a standard spiced ale, malts that range from moderate to massive matched with minimal IBUs, easy-ish drinking, sometimes sticky, plenty sweet. Very rarely was one truly distinctive.
Last year I praised Milwaukee Brewing Company’s Sasquash Porter for doing something different with the style — hefting it up and darkening the usually amber/orange beast. I like the same things about the Warlock — a little extra heft, more roasty bitter flavors, something interesting to grab onto instead of a shoulder-shrugging “meh” of just. another. pumpkin. beer.
Aromatically, a big burst of pie crust, cinnamon, ginger, along with welcome additions of molasses, scorched caramel and snickerdoodle cookie jam the nose. Let it warm and you’re left with muted scents of the above along with a little raisin and cardboardy oxidization. On the pour this is the color of the season — black as a witch’s…hat, what did you think I was going to say — with a wispy gingerbread-mocha head that dissipates entirely within a few minutes.
Bodywise, this is much lighter than you’d expect for an Imperial Stout, even an 8.6% one, but you probably don’t want a totally motor-oil-viscous brew bridging the gap between summer and winter, which I get — although a little more weight to this wouldn’t have been awful. The finish is overly bitter — it’s more out-of-place hop bitterness than coffee or roasty bitterness and I wouldn’t call it pleasant. I expect someone during the recipe formulation process decided that everything about this needed to be “MORE” including the bittering hops; I can see a world where a bitter hop finish might work but these were just sharp and out of place.
Be well aware that plenty of pumpkin flavor rolls through this, more than just buckets of spices — those notes so prevalent in the aroma don’t translate directly to the flavor, although they’re nice to have there. Let this warm to nearly room temp and an interesting milk chocolate or even Hershey’s chocolate syrup flavor comes popping out that makes this one nice and fun.
The immediate comparison to Pumking has to be made, of course. There’s a part in Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer” where he makes mention of “keeping the bean counters” away from the brewing process. Every year, I envision the growing numbers on the invoice sheet, and the ka-ching of cash registers in the ears of Southern Tier, and I can just picture the math being done to try and wring as much cash out of this annual pumpkin binge — a little less malt, some lesser spicing, some lighter ingredients to make it a little easier drinking so maybe people buy two pints instead of one…
Is that the case? Who knows. All I know is when I drink Pumking now, it’s just not the same sensation of exploding, rich, well-balanced, complex pumpkin ale that it used to be. For me. As always, all reviews are subjective and maybe you love it just as much as ever. Warlock isn’t perfect, but it’s something I’ll come back to much quicker than Pumking.