If I'd been on TwoBrothers' press list for more than about four months, I might suspect the brewery was specifically baiting me by making a beer called "Midwestern Death Metal." Sure, the label art will hardly have Three Floyds and Surly looking over their shoulders, but the name! Come on!
Insupportably grandiose notions about the influence of my column notwithstanding, I simply can't have been the target here. This special-release imperial stout has spent seven or eight months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels (joined for at least part of that time by Madagascar vanilla beans and Two Brothers' own Stomping Ground Espresso), and that's roughly twice as long as the brewery appears to have known I exist. Midwestern Death Metal is limited in a couple ways: the whole batch consists of somewhere between 600 and 800 bomber bottles, and they'll be sold only at the Cabin Fever party at Two Brothers' Tap House in Warrenville on Sunday, February 23. Don't bother looking for it in stores. There isn't even a bar code on the label.
To make Midwestern Death Metal, Two Brothers' brewers dropped mesh bags of espresso grounds directly into bourbon barrels full of beer. The vanilla went in sans bags, scraped right out of a mess of slit-open beans. The finished stout is almost entirely opaque, and I'd straight-up call it black if it didn't have a frothy head the color of cafe au lait—suggesting that in fact it's a brown so dark it might as well be black.
The smell of the beer hits you as you pour it—you don't have to get too close to this one. First impressions? Fudgy brownies drizzled with caramel, soft pecan pralines, and strong Turkish coffee—black, thick, and sweet. I'm reminded of a confection called, unfortunately, "bourbon balls" (the kind that uses crushed vanilla wafers), and I think I can pick up a hint of barrel oak or saddle leather.
The taste isn't as sweet as you might expect from the aroma—it's not actually very sweet at all, not for a barrel-aged imperial stout. Generous prickly carbonation (presumably added in the production tank where the brewers blended the barrels prior to bottling) complements the bitter tang of the espresso, whose flavor faintly suggests lemon and blueberry; it's slightly astringent, maybe because Two Brothers used grounds instead of brewed coffee. I taste lots of charred, roasty malts and tons of bittersweet chocolate—so much that I double checked the label to be sure no chocolate had been added to the beer. The bourbon flavor is subtle, despite those months of barreling—I think it might be muted because it has to come in underneath the coffee. What whiskey heat I can pick up is agreeably softened by creme brulee and vanilla caramel.
I was sort of expecting black smoke to pour over the sides of the glass, but this is fine too.
Midwestern Death Metal is on the thin side for a barrel-aged stout, especially one that's 9.95 percent alcohol, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Thanks to its unsyrupy texture and its great balance of flavors—bitter, roasty, and astringent on one hand, rich and desserty on the other—it's surprisingly easy to drink for its strength. I bet it's going to age well too—a year in the bottle ought to mellow the sharpness of the espresso.
The Cabin Fever party at the Tap House on Sunday starts at noon and runs till 9 PM, with a specialty menu heavy on comfort foods and a draft list that will include a forthcoming sour in the Project Opus series, the first taste of the new Polar Vortex Dunkel Lager (officially released the next day), and a preview of this year's batch of Monarch White Beer. Two Brothers is also raffling off a pair of tickets to a February 26 concert by John Hiatt and Lucius at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove.
Admission to the party is five bucks, and if you buy a ticket in advance you're guaranteed the chance to buy Midwestern Death Metal at $21.99 per bottle. If you pay at the door, you might not get a crack at it.
But wait! There's more! By which I mean that Cabin Fever isn't the only Two Brothers party coming up. On Friday, March 14, the brewery celebrates its 17th anniversary at the Two Brothers Roundhouse brewpub in Aurora (the same building formerly occupied by Walter Payton's Roundhouse). The draft list is far from settled, but a 17th-anniversary barrel-aged beer will definitely be on hand. No tickets required this time.
This metal-style logo gets an "A" for effort.
When I wrote about Revolution Brewing last week, I implied that Two Brothers, like Rev, would soon run into trouble with the craft brewers' production cap. As it turns out, that's not strictly true. The brewery acquired four new 200-barrel fermenters late last year, and it hopes to produce 50,000 barrels of beer in 2014—well above the current craft brewer's cap of 30,000. (It's also renovating its canning line and working on installing a new centrifuge.) But Two Brothers doesn't have a craft brewer's license, and it never has.
Two Brothers is confronted by the same regulatory hurdles as Revolution, but it's dealing with them in a different way. Its production facility in Warrenville is licensed as a regular old brewery, with no output cap. The seven-barrel system at the Roundhouse will come online soon, after some final tweaks to the electricals; among other things, it will produce lots of one-off beers unique to the pub. But according to the brewery's press team, the Roundhouse is incorporated separately, so even if it had a brewpub license (which it doesn't), the various entities that make up Two Brothers wouldn't need an additional craft brewer's license in order to run both operations. That's how this differs from Revolution's situation: Rev founder Josh Deth says he was required to get one of those restrictive craft licenses because his company owns both a brewery and a brewpub.
One of the goals of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild is to make licensing issues surrounding craft brewing less complicated and confusing. That can't happen soon enough.
Now back to Midwestern Death Metal—and to some midwestern death metal. The name of this beer, according to Two Brothers cofounder Jason Ebel, "Came from a night of some pretty interesting conversation between our brewers and our east-coast sales team.”
I asked the brewery's media people about the content of that conversation, hoping to learn what bands if any had come up. I got back a list of half a dozen, but I think somebody's pulling my leg. I mean, the Shaggs? First of all, they're from New Hampshire. And they could only be described as "metal" in an act of deliberate perversity. (I'll always love what jazz pianist and composer Carla Bley said about the Shaggs, though: "They bring my mind to a complete halt.")
Among the other answers was "Doberman," which might have been a joke too—except that it's also the name of a one-man death-metal project from Parma, Ohio, near Cleveland, that put out one demo in 1993 and then disappeared.
If you care enough about metal to read this portion of my column habitually, you'll probably recognize the other midwestern bands the Two Brothers folks mentioned: Ringworm, Walls of Jericho, the Black Dahlia Murder, and Dead to Fall. But rather than get into an argument about which of those should be called "death metal," how about I share some old-school Chicago stuff?
In this town only Macabre, founded in 1984, can rival death-metal trio Cianide for longevity—these south-side lifers have kept their band going continuously since 1988. "Forsaken Doom" comes from their most recent full-length, 2011's Gods of Death.
Chicago trio Bones has only been around for a few years, but two of these guys cofounded Usurper in 1993 (and the third joined the band later). "Good Die Young" appears on Bones' self-titled debut album from 2011.
The Chasm is a Chicago death-metal band by way of Mexico, where they got started in 1992. From what I can tell they're still active, but they haven't released anything in a spell. (Members of the Chasm play in Acerus, though, and that group—while not exactly death metal—put out The Unreachable Salvation last year.) "Return of the Banished" is from 2000's Procession to the Infraworld.
Founded in 1988, Broken Hope split up in 2001 and reunited in 2012. Last year they released Omen of Disease and hit the road, opening for the likes of Deicide and Obituary. I can't do more than link to a track from the new album, "The Flesh Mechanic." But here's a little something from Broken Hope's 1991 full-length debut, Swamped in Gore. It's called "Devourer of Souls."
I'm obviously making no attempt to be exhaustive here, but you can't talk about Chicago death metal without mentioning Paul Speckmann. A pillar of the city's early metal scene, he founded the on-again, off-again band Master way back in 1983 (it's now based in the Czech Republic, where he's unsurprisingly the only remaining original member). He's played in a long list of related groups too, including Abomination, Funeral Bitch, and Death Strike.
"Pay to Die" appears on Death Strike's 1991 album Fuckin' Death, as well as on Master's self-titled 1990 debut LP. Both bands also released versions of the song on demos in 1985.
Here's what Master sounds like these days. "Smile as You're Told" is from the 2012 albumThe New Elite.
In the process of writing this post, I discovered a few old Chicago death-metal bands I'd never heard of, including a standout that sounded good enough to share: one-album wonders Morgue. Eroded Thoughts came out in 1993, and this to-the-point tune is called "Repulsive Death."
I hope it goes without saying that I'm always looking for recommendations—for metal and for beer. Despite stumbling into writing this column, I'm a relative newcomer to both worlds. If you can't contain your urge to school my ignorant ass, go ahead and leave a comment. And thanks!