At a Glance: blend (Papua New Guinea and… beer); full-bodied; stout, malty, coffee, intense; low acidity; washed

Happy holidays, fellow coffee enthusiasts. And today, I’d like to also say “seasons greetings” to all of you beer connoisseurs and lushes, alike! Welcome, all of you, to the bar here in the corner of this pub. I’m glad you were able to find me here—I know this location is a little uncouth for what we typically do at this website, but, trust me, you’ll be really happy you put in the extra effort to come.

As you could probably guess from our meeting place today, we’re going to be doing things a little differently than we typically do when we meet at various coffee shops. Today, instead of tasting a holiday coffee, we’re going to be sipping a holiday beer! I know this is a pretty big difference from what we normally do, so to ease ourselves into our new seating arrangement, the beer we’re going to taste is actually infused with coffee. Are your taste buds and palate ready to try something new?

Feel free to pull up a… um… a stool, I suppose.

Every year, around this time, two Chicago-based brewing powerhouses, Dark Matter Coffee Company and Half Acre Beer Company, combine their forces to create and unleash a festive feline monster on the world: Big Hugs. The giant yuletide kitty then stomps and clobbers his way down from the North Pole and into pubs and liquor stores all over Chicago, bringing holiday cheer and goodwill towards all people (after leaving a path of destruction in his wake, of course). And every year, around this time, Chicago-area boys and girls, kids from one to ninety-two, cheer with mirth and merry when Big Hugs comes town.

The process involved in bringing this festive feline mutant hybrid to life is pretty interesting, so let’s start there.

Now, I’m fairly ignorant when it comes to beverages other than coffee—I’m really not too sure all of the steps in creating a well-crafted beer, so I’m not even going to pretend that I do. I’m really not even too sure how to truly taste beer. So, with that in mind, you beer enthusiasts out there will have to bear with me. I do know, however, the difference between a beer I like and one I don’t like; and, like I always told customers at cupping events who said the same thing about tasting coffee, that’s a really good (and underrated) place to start. Being able to first say “I like this” or “I don’t like this” opens the door to describing what you “like” or “don’t like” about what you’re tasting. Then, once you feel comfortable with describing what you like and dislike, you’re well on your way to being a professional critic.

The folks of Dark Matter made the long, treacherous journey up Interstate 94, from Ukrainian Village to Lincoln Square, and headed over to Half Acre’s brewery with their Fetco TOD, 12 beehouse drippers, a generator, and a hundred pounds of coffee—after trying several of their roasts, they decided to go with their Papua New Guinea (which, of course, got me even more excited to give Big Hugs a try). All of the coffee and the beer were brewed separately, because the differentials for optimum extraction temperatures of coffee and hops don’t match up. The Dark Matter folks ended up brewing a little over 70 pounds of coffee with 20 gallons of water, making—as Dark Matter owner, Jesse Diaz, told me—”one real f***in’ large ristretto.” They brewed the coffee as a pour-over, five gallons at a time, doing somewhere around 540 pour-overs inside the brewery.

Meanwhile, the Half Acre crowd was busy doing their thing—brewing up an ultimate imperial stout. Now, I’m going to get really basic for a little bit to explain some things to the coffee crowd, because I found this information really interesting. So, as we all know, there are all sorts of beers—ale, lager, pilsner, etc. This particular beer is a stout (like Guinness), and there even all sorts of variations of stouts. Kind of like how a coffee can from various regions and be of different varietals like caturra, heirloom, or whatever. Big Hugs is an imperial stout—or, a Russian imperial stout. This kind of beer was first brewed in the late 18th century by a brewery in England called Thrales specifically for export to the castle of Russia’s then-czar, Catherine II. These stouts (or porters) are really dark, heavy beers made using roasted malt or barley, hops, water, and yeast.

Once Half Acre finished up brewing their stout, they stored it in holding tanks and waited for Dark Matter to finish up brewing the coffee. When Dark Matter brewed up about 20 gallons of coffee, they injected the coffee directly into the final holding tank, then Half Acre poured their beer into the same tank, and stirred thoroughly to ensure that it was perfectly mixed. Then, of course, the Frankenstein monster kitty cat was bottled, labeled, and shipped out.

And that’s when all unholy hell broke loose…

I was very fortunate to try this beer out, because it didn’t last at the Half Acre brewery long, and it’s already quickly flying off the shelves at area liquor stores. In fact, when I went to Binny’s Beverage Depot—Chicago’s giant liquor retailer—the day after Half Acre shipped their remaining bottles out, they were already down to their last two bottles! Needless to say, year after year, Chicagoans are eager to adopt the cute little kitten—no matter how monstrous he truly is.

And since Big Hugs is such an enormous brew, I’ve got plenty to share with all of you. So let’s see how this cat tastes, shall we?

DISCLAIMER: Again, I’ve never critiqued a beer before, so my tasting terms are pretty novice.

First of all, before we even get to sipping, I’m told that a beer’s appearance is an important feature to take note of. True to form, this stout is cloudy, thick, and inky black with a shade of reddish brown when you hold it up to the light. I poured the beer as best as I could, but I couldn’t quite get a two-finger head with the foam—maybe more like one finger. The head isn’t as thick as the head of a Guinness (not sure if that’s atypical of imperial stouts or not), nor is it as creamy beige-white as a Guinness. Rather, it’s thin, but smooth, and had a medium brown tint.

The aroma is malty and very roasty. There’s also a strong dark chocolate scent, and a hint of fruitiness, which no doubt came from the infused coffee. When I took my first sip,my eyes opened wide and I literally exclaimed, “Whoa!” This beer is certainly very intense, very dark, very heavy, very firm. That first sip was a real shock to my taste buds—they’re not used to such stimulation from a stout. I’m an Irishman, so I’m genetically predispositioned to drinking Guinness—which is like liquid bread. It’s really thick and heavy, but creamy and smooth. That’s what my Irish palate is used to. Big Hugs, on the other hand, is almost nothing at all like Guinness. It’s thick and heavy, which is characteristic of stouts in general, but the flavor of this beer is so intense. It’s bitter, musky, and rich with flavorful notes of roasty dark chocolate, licorice, and coffee (obviously).

However, as strong as the beer is, the Papua New Guinea coffee really shines through the cloudy stout nicely; which for the purposes of this website, I’m most interested in. As the beer approaches closer and closer to room temperature, the Papua New Guinea’s fruitiness and nuttiness starts to ever so faintly show itself. I would never classify Big Hugs as a “fruity” or “nutty” beer, but there is definitely a very faint hints of dry cranberry, almond, and citrus—not enough for a showcase, just barely enough to complement the beer. There were also notes of oak and a very mild spiciness. The coffee’s earthiness and grittiness, of course, lends itself wonderfully to the blend because the stout is every bit as earthy and gritty as the coffee.

Big Hugs takes his final bow and finishes nicely with very little acidity, but a bittersweet palate-coating aftertaste. Then with his girth and 10% ABV, he tumbles, stumbles, and clumsily waddles his way back to a year-long catnap, where he lays dormant until Half Acre and Dark Matter resurrect the beast for another holiday season full of chaos and mayhem.

The Bottom Line

After finishing Big Hugs, I’m surprised I was able to sit upright at my computer, let alone write a review of the beer. This is a very intense, very alcoholic beer that is absolutely relentless from first sip to last gulp. Aside from having such a big personality, Big Hugs is also really flavorful with notes of dark chocolate, black licorice, and a slight hint of dried tropical fruit. Half Acre Beer Company and Dark Matter Coffee Company’s 2011 Big Hugs collaboration is a real holiday treat for the coffee and beer lover alike.

With its wonderful flavor, it will make a wonderful holiday gift for your taste buds or a family member you love; or with its 10% ABV, it will help you get through the holiday despite a family member you love.

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