Dogfish Head's World Wide Stout is as formidable a beer as you'll ever find. In its softest years, it bottoms out at 18% ABV—at its strongest, it's been 23%. Rich, deeply complex, and pretty darn sweet, it's a beer best sipped contemplatively while wearing fuzzy slippers by a fireplace somewhere.
It's probably not best enjoyed twelve bottles at a time. But that's exactly what we did.
It all started July 10th, 2009. My good buddy Zac and I were celebrating our birthdays in the upstairs bar of San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery. I was presented with a gift: five bottles of Dogfish Head's World Wide Stout, dating from 2003 to 2007.
I've always loved this beer, so I was stoked. But at this time in my life as a fledgling beer geek, I was a little...overly-enthusiastic about building my cellar. The number of bottles beneath my house was quickly exceeding the number I could drink in any reasonable amount of time and I showed no sign of stopping. In his generosity, Zac had unknowingly instilled a sense of duty (a curse?) into me: I needed to collect every damn bottle of this beer that I could.
I begged, borrowed, stole, and traded beer with weird strangers on the internet for 3 years until I had a pretty respectable collection.
I couldn't find any from the beer's first vintage. Initially made and hand-bottled at Dogfish's Rehoboth Beach brewpub in 1999, it very briefly held the title as the strongest beer in the world.
I can't imagine there are too many left on this earth.
I did manage to find a bottle from 2000, though, and one from 2002. I picked up bottles from 2008 and 2009 off the shelves, but that's where my collection stalled. The beer was getting harder to find here in California and I wasn't sure I'd ever get around to drinking the stuff anyway.
Then I emailed Dogfish with an idea. We'd taste through a damn-near-complete vertical of the stuff and write an article about it...but we'd need some help filling in the gaps.
The beer wasn't made in 2012, but they supplied us with bottles of the 2010 and 2011 batches, as well as a sneak-peek taste at the just-bottled 2013 vintage, before anyone else outside the brewery had tasted it.
Six of us set up at Maggie's house with a strange tension in the air. Some in the group had never had the beer and the idea of taking down a half case of 18% ABV beer is, admittedly, a bit daunting. The "hold onto your butts" invitation email I'd sent out in anticipation of the event probably didn't help in that regard (I'm not sorry).
We started in with the oldest bottle, and over the course of about three hours, drank straight through to the freshest (and then went back to re-taste a few favorites.) Here's our report from the front lines.
Dense and totally still, the oldest bottle still had a ripping current of booze running through a chocolatey, teriyaki-like malt body. It drew comparisons to miso-glazed cod, a chocolate martini, and blackstrap molasses. One taster said: "I don't eat fruitcake, but I imagine this is what it tastes like."
This bottle weighed in at 23% ABV, and was made with a slightly different recipe than other vintages. The difference was stark—the beer was much more translucent, pouring a lighter brown color and showing raspberry seed and plum character that we wouldn't encounter again in the tasting. The alcohol in this year's batch was intensely aromatic and solvent-like, making one taster respond: "It's like drinking cola in a nail salon."
The 2003 bottle was a divisive one. Present again was that teriyaki-like savory flavor we found in the 2000 bottle, but this was drier, and more fruit character was developing. We were reminded of concord grape, spicy candied ginger, and eucalyptus, and several tasters found it sweeter than the earlier vintages we'd tasted.
By 2004, the teriyaki-like savoriness shifted from a dominant role to a supporting one, and the beer began to taste more like salty black licorice, Tootsie Roll, and a little lavender. Some tasters complained of moth ball-like flavors. "It's a bit like grandma's closet," one person said. Another responded: "Is that where your grandma hides her beef jerky?"
The 2005 vintage represented a turning point in the tasting. Maybe it was just the ABV working its magic, but things seemed to take a noticeably positive turn. Malted milk ball, black cherry, and molasses flavors were noted and we appreciated a richer texture and the emergence of balancing roasted malt bitterness. If the beers were tired before, the 2005 vintage had just taken its first sip of coffee. "It totally tastes like malted milk balls and Luxardo cherries," said one taster. "Oh my god, yes! I love those," another answered.
With a sip of the 2006, the word "balanced" was uttered for the first time. This beer was sweet—really sweet—but with a more robust carbonation, light alcoholic astringency, and roasted bitterness to keep things in check.
Aromatically, the 2007 bottle was the most exciting we'd yet encountered. Grape jelly and date-like aromas dominated, intensified by piercing alcohol. That said, the tasters seemed united in the belief that the beer did not taste as good as it smelled. "It's like a 50/50 blend of grape and chocolate sodas," said one taster, wishing the flavors were a little more integrated.
The 2008 release was tasting similarly disjointed, and one taster summed it up: "There's a lot going on, but I'm not sure it works." The beer had all the liveliness of one not-yet-killed by time, but dry grain, dark fruit and alcohol flavors failed to unite as one.
Tasters were immediately excited by the 2009 bottle. Concord grape juice and port wine-like fruit flavor balanced nicely with chocolatey, coffee-like roasted grain character. Alcohol provided an even warming throughout, and tasters called it "focused" and "united."
Surprisingly, the 2010 bottle was less fruity-tasting than the vintages on either side of it, but that didn't stop it from being complex and interesting. "There's lots going on here," said one taster. "It's herbal, woodsy, even mentholated."
Noticeably young, the two-year-old bottle wasn't a favorite. Coming off as harsh and in-your-face, this was less silky and smooth in texture. Alcohol and bitterness were not very well-integrated and distracted from the more pleasurable elements of the beer. If you've got one of these, it might make sense to continue to cellar it a little.
Very sweet and viscous, the new release was a surprising hit. On the heels of an abrasive, two-year-old bottle, we expected a three-day-old bottle of World Wide Stout to be annoyingly aggressive. It wasn't. Toasted and roasty malt character was much more prominent than in other bottles, with a cinnamon and nutmeg-like spiciness to it. This beer is cohesive, intense, and satisfying.
How Long Should You Age Your World Wide Stout?
Our tasters were divided on a favorite vintage, but the most votes went to the bottles from 2006, 2009, and 2013. Those that preferred the bottle from 2006 prized it for its drinkability, simplicity, and balance—this beer is a beast tamed by a little age. Fans of the 2009 bottle loved its combination of liveliness and cohesiveness. But all appreciated the fresh, soon-to-be-released 2013 bottle—it's over-the-top, sure, but that's exactly what it intends to be.
There is no "right" length of time for aging this beer&mdas;its development is a wild ride that's largely dependent on how it's handled from the moment it leaves the brewery to the time you pop the cap.
Our recommendation: pick up a couple of bottles of World Wide Stout for aging experiments, and try them over the next 3-8 years. But get another one to crack open now. Just make sure you've got a fireplace and fuzzy slippers nearby.
Need some tips on aging beer? Check this out.
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone working as Minister of Education for California-based distributor Lime Ventures. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.