Dark Secret Imperial Stout

Every Black Friday, Bourbonnais, Illinois’s Brickstone Brewery releases their signature Dark Secret—a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with a coffee variant. (Black Friday was, of course, several weeks ago now but I managed to find a holdout bottle at my local liquor store.) This year, Brickstone teamed up with Chicago’s Dark Matter Coffee Company to be that variant.

“Being a creator of craft beer, you start to venture off and try many things that are hand-crafted and unique,” Brickstone’s Tommy Vasilakis tells me. “Dark Matter Coffee is one of those. When hearing about Dark Matter and their extreme talent for coffee beans, I decided to explore them for myself. From the first coffee I had from them I started to think about how we could collaborate and create a custom blend for our Dark Secret.”

Vasilakis reached out to the Dark Matter folks and from the get go, they were on board.

The two teams set up a coffee cupping, where Brickstone could taste each of Dark Matter’s offerings and choose the one they thought would work best. After that tasting, they had to decide what extraction method would work best for the coffee they chose.

“We chose to age the coffee beans in the beer cold, tasting it until we thought that the extraction blended well with the beer,” says Vasilakis. “We chose a few different beans and sat down with members of our team blind taste testing different blends of coffee. We all agreed on the same blend.”

The coffee Brickstone chose to create Dark Secret came from Federico Pacas’s farm, Finca El Rosario in El Salvador. Dark Matter aged the green beans in bourbon barrels acquired from Heaven Hill Distilleries before roasting, then Brickstone mixed two different roast profiles of the coffee into their beer.


The coffee component of Dark Secret Imperial Stout comes to us from the department of Santa Ana, located in El Salvador. It’s a pretty small town, being only inhabited by about 8,500 people. Of that small population, though, there is a very prominent family in the El Salvadorian coffee industry represented: the Pacas family.

Finca El Rosario is one of a few farms owned by Federico Pacas, his sister Lily, and their father. Another high-profile farm of theirs is called Finca Santa Petrona—the second oldest finca for the cultivation of the Pacas variety, and the site of the oldest Pacas trees in production in the world. How’s that for a feather in their cap?

Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping the the Dark Secret Imperial Stout—a collaboration between Chicago’s Dark Matter Coffee Company and Brickstone Brewery. Feel free to pull up a chair.


region: Santa Ana, El Salvador
farm: Finca El Rosario
producer: Federico Pacas
association: N/A
elevation: 1350 meters above sea level
cultivars: Bourbon
process: fully washed, patio dried
certifications: standard


style: Imperial Russian Coffee Stout
ABV: 11%
IBUs: 60
color: Black
ingredients: Coffee, East Kent Goldings, English Chocolate Malt, English Pale Chocolate Malt, American Dark Chocolate Malt


Upon pouring the bottle’s contents into my snifter, Dark Secret’s aroma has an intensity characterized by scents of deep dark chocolate, roasted malts, oak, and spicy Bourbon whiskey. Visually, the beer is a deep, oily black with an extremely minimal and thin (maybe a centimeter or two?) dark tan head.

Taking my first few sips from the snifter, I have to admit that I’m struck by its initial profile: somewhat sweet, somewhat spicy, and pretty bitter. It’s an incredibly full-bodied, with a thick, chewy, malty body. Lots of roasted malts, barley, pipe tobacco, and oatmeal up front, pushed forward by intense flavors of bittersweet dark chocolate, molasses, and caramel.

The coffee component doesn’t really shine through the heaviness of the imperial stout profile, but it is there; resting quietly in the background of each sip. There’s some blackberry, raisin, cranberry, fig, green apple; but what really announces the coffee’s presence are the sharp, spicy flavors of bourbon and oak barrel that bite at the sides of the tongue.

Full body; malty mouthfeel; berry acidity; clean finish.


We’re seeing a lot of progress and diversity, lately, in the ways that coffee beers are approached. Most of these beers, traditionally, have been stouts and porters but now we’re seeing all sorts of styles that infuse coffee. Even within the traditional heavy styles we’re seeing diversity in how the coffee is infused. Traditionally, for example, the coffee is cold-brewed then mixed in with the beer. With Brickstone and Dark Matter’s Dark Secret Imperial Stout, on the other hand, we found the brew master aging the brewed beer with with the roasted coffee beans in it, simply extracting the flavor essence of the beans out of them.

It was a strategy that really worked, as this beer was phenomenal; one that I really enjoyed sipping on these cold winter nights. It’s perfectly full-bodied, sugary sweet, and roasty—really nice as a dessert beer—but it also has that woody spiciness that keeps it interesting and complex.

Not surprisingly, the Beverage Testing Institute also loved this beer, awarding it with a score of 92/100 and a Gold medal in the Stout, Porters, and Strong Ales competition held last month.

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