Taste Test: Saint Arnold's Bishops Barrel 6

The latest in Saint Arnold's series of barrel-aged beers was released to bars this past week. Bishops Barrel No. 6 takes the Pumpkinator, the brewery's popular seasonal imperial pumpkin stout, and ages it nine months in rum barrels from Appleton Estate. I went to the Stag's Head Pub at Shepherd and Richmond, a reliable neighborhood mainstay, to sample the beer.

The Bishops Barrel No. 5 was a Wee Heavy Scotch ale that was 9.0% ABV before barreling and 12.0% upon bottling. It's a beer heavy and thick with flavor that can be overpowering to someone not knowing what to expect. Since the Pumpkinator and No. 6 are even stronger -- 10.4% ABV originally, 13.0% after barreling -- I expected an even more extreme drinking experience from the No. 6 than the No. 5. What I got was a surprise.

The first thing I noticed about the beer was the up-front sweetness, both in aroma and taste. This was the most obvious effect of the rum-barrel aging: The beer's nose was sugary in a way the Pumpkinator hadn't been, and this sweetness was the primary aroma in the nose, stronger than any of the pumpkin flavor and other autumn spices of the original beer.

I was very surprised by the beer's drinkability. While I enjoyed the Bishops Barrel No. 5, it was a heavy beer that required slow sipping, with the bourbon overtones combining with the body of the Scotch ale for an almost overpowering booziness. (In contrast, the Bishops Barrel No. 4, a bourbon-aged weizenbock, started with a lighter-bodied base beer, which gave the bourbon flavors more room to breathe and kept the mouthfeel from becoming overwhelming.) Since I recalled the Pumpkinator being a dark, heavy beer, rich in body, flavor and seasonal spices, I expected to find the Bishops Barrel No. 6 to be similarly heavy and complex to the No. 5. I was surprised to find that, midway through the beer, the sweetness of the rum barrels actually made the beer feel lighter than the original, despite the higher ABV. The spices and chocolaty quality of the original Pumpkinator had been somewhat muted by this effect, but the beer on the whole was sweeter, smoother and easier to drink as a result.

The ending finish is where the beer most strongly maintained its pumpkin spice flavors. The hints of rum and sugarcane were still present, but not to the degree they were at the beginning and middle of the beers. The beer finishes smoothly on the whole, with a sweetness that complements the booziness well.

That boozy feel is present throughout the beer: Bishops Barrel No. 6 is undeniably a 13% ABV beer, and you'll sense that if you drink one. The sweetness of the rum keeps that feel from becoming overpowering or unpleasant, instead lightening the body and the notes of the beer and overall making it feel smoother than its unaged Pumpkinator counterpart.

Bishops Barrel No. 6 is available now at a bar near you, but if you're planning to try it, you may want to call ahead to your local beer house and be certain it's still in stock.

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