Welcome to Thirsty Thursday, a weekly column where we pick a beer from our fridge and review it, because in a world where two new breweries launch every single week, sometimes we need some help sifting through all of the hops.
Christmas is a time for gathering with friends, playing stupid games and drinking delicious beer – and that’s exactly what I did last weekend. After hosting friends for a Christmas party, I reaped the rewards of the unconsumed beer that was left in the fridge and decided I would highlight one of those beers for this week’s column, especially since I am a fan of this particular brewery. That brewery is Firestone Walker Brewing Company, which I got the chance to visit while vacationing in California this past summer, and the beer is Nitro Merlin Milk Stout. As I’ve said before, stouts are not my favorite type of beer, particularly ones with a heavy coffee flavor, but I’ve been getting more into it, so you can bet there will be more with winter fast approaching.
Founded in 1996 by British expatriate David Walker and his brother-in-law Adam Firestone, the great-great grandson of Harvey Firestone, who started the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Firestone Walker thrived on blending the authenticity of old world craft with Californian spirit. It led to several medals for its beer as well as several “Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewer of The Year” awards at both the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. The notoriety and passion for making abundantly complex beer propelled the company to the fourth largest in California, no easy task in a state that is home to the likes of Stone Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Modern Times Beer and many other heavy-hitters.
I got the chance to visit Firestone Walker’s Venice location, which is primarily where the company does research and development, over the summer while vacationing. The food was very delicious but the beer available there was mind-blowing, including arguably the best stout I’ve ever tasted: Coconut Rye Parabola 2018, a 12.2 percent ABV imperial stout aged in Whistle Pig Rye Whiskey barrels. If you liked barrel-aged efforts, specifically stouts, Firestone Walker’s on-going Parabola series puts out a plethora of highly desirable, and slightly pricey, efforts that are great. But don’t sleep on the nearly dozen or so yearly efforts either because what I’ve had was also tasty.
Nitro Merlin is one I hadn’t had before, so I went into it blind. It’s 5.5 percent ABV, 27 IBUs and the company’s first nitro beer, which basically means it contains more nitrogen gas and less carbon dioxide than a traditional beer, allowing for a thicker, longer-lasting head and smooth mouthfeel. It’s what accentuates a stout like this one and really helps make it next-level. There’s also a specific way to pour Nitro Merlin to ensure it looks and tastes its sexiest.
The can offers a warning that says to stop and pour it hard into a glass and then gives step by step directions. It’s something I can’t say I’ve seen on a can much in the past, though The Alchemist did recommend drinking Heady Topper from the can to get the optimal hop stickiness. As for the look of the 12-ounce Nitro Merlin can, it is simple, with a black and gray theme, and prominently features Firestone Walker’s logo. The highly recognizable fighting bear and lion are highlighted in the background plus it says Beer Before Glory at the top, which couldn’t be much more badass, if you ask me.
I followed the directions and poured this into my Lions, Bears and Beer glass I got from their brewery – I typically grab a glass of some sort from each substantial brewery I visit – even though you can’t tell in the photo because this beer is so dark. It looked great coming out of the can and poured just like it should, with a lofty, brownish head that came rising up from the bottom of the jet black beer. When it came to the smell, I waited until I poured it to get the full effect and I noted a little bit of coffee as well as a very distinct cream smell – I think even rookie beer drinkers could’ve identified it.
When it came to the taste, Nitro Merlin was rich and enjoyably creamy. I noticed a little of the chocolate flavor but it was masked by the coffee notes, which simply goes against my taste preferences, but I liked how it started warm and hit on the bitter taste at the end. Firestone Walker nailed the mouthfeel here – and that’s tough to do outside of a keg. It is smooth and, despite being traditionally a “sipper” beer, makes you want to keep going back. The drinkability is as good as it should be for a stout, to be quite honest.
Nitro Merlin has 441 BeerAdvocate ratings, for an average score of 4.06, and the site scores this effort a 91 out of a possible 100. My rating would be a 6.8 out of 10 and that’s simply based on the fact that my taste doesn’t align with this particular beer. It’s just a little too heavy on the coffee flavor for my liking, which I know is common in milk stouts. Having said that, I recognize that Nitro Merlin is a really well manufactured beer when it comes to milk stouts and how it definitely fits in with the complex beers I’ve previously had from Firestone Walker – but I’d reach for most of their other beers, specifically something from the Parabola series or Bretta Blanc, first.
Stay tuned for next week, because I might just try something from your favorite brewery.