I've never been much for desserts, they often seem to be so loaded with sugar that the complex flavors beneath are covered up. How else could you explain the fact that "vanilla" is now a synonym for boring? A high quality vanilla bean has to have just about the most complex aroma there is, sure there is the "vanilla" but there is also floral, leather, tobacco etc... And don't even get me started on the misdeeds that have been done to rich smoky complexities of chocolate over the years.
Once a year I try to make a chocolate-vanilla stout to highlight these much loved but oft abused flavors. I hadn't done one in more than a year so my Breakfast Stout Riff seemed like the perfect opportunity. In the past I didn't have good luck with cocoa nibs (no head retention), but cocoa powder (with its lower fat content) has been a great choice. Real vanilla bean in the secondary fermenter is the only way to go because of their delicate flavors and alcohol soluble molecules. This time around I also added some bourbon soaked oak cubes in the hope that the vanillin from the charred wood would help to highlight the vanilla bean.
Appearance – Opaque black body. The head is dark and loose with medium-poor retention. Longer, creamier head retention would have been nice. (Sorry for how boring the pictures of these four beers were.)
Smell – Rich dark chocolate and a hint of vanilla. There is an an earthy component and some pastry maltiness as well, very nice. A hint of bourbon/booze arrives as the beer warms along with just a hint of tobacco.
Taste – The cocoa comes through at the front and back with the vanilla/bourbon sandwiched in the middle. Just a hint of char in the finish. The hop bitterness helps to balance the residual carbohydrates and accentuate the dark chocolate association. Smooth/rounded, certainly desserty, but not too sweet.
Mouthfeel – Feels a bit fuller than the other three versions, and the carbonation seems a bit lower as well (although it is still over-carbonated). Not ideal, but I've had worse.
Drinkability & Notes – For such a big beer it is pretty easy to drink, probably my favorite of the four iterations. I would have liked a bit more complex vanilla character, but the chocolate is spot on. Next time I would up the vanilla addition a bit, but otherwise it just screams dessert.