But Solemn Oath has been growing steadily, adding tanks in January 2013 and again in October; it kegged 780 barrels in 2012 and 2,000 this year, and its annual capacity has reached 3,200. Though it's still a small shop—less than half the size of the modest operation at Maine Beer Company and not even in the ballpark with local heavyweights Revolution, who plan to brew 42,000 barrels in 2014—some crucial line has clearly been crossed, because last week Solemn Oath started selling bottles.
On Tuesday, December 17, the Naperville tap room released bottles of a new double stout called Combat Marshmallow, and on Thursday they started showing up in liquor stores. (Solemn Oath uses Windy City Distributing, but with a few exceptions the brewery doesn't yet know which shops will get its beer—on Twitter it's suggested using the hashtag #SOBbottles.) Fan-favorite double IPA Ravaged by Vikings (which I reviewed earlier this year) arrived at the tap room on Friday, and if all goes well it'll hit shelves today.
Both beers come in 22-ounce bombers that cost $7.99 apiece. The brewery's six-head Meheen bottling machine can handle a 30-barrel batch in about nine hours—not bad, considering that Solemn Oath has just six full-time staff—but in neither instance did that much beer end up bottled. (Grain and hops take up space in the tanks too.) Brewery president John Barley says 352 cases of Ravaged by Vikings and 250 cases of Combat Marshmallow made it out into the world—that's 4,224 and 3,000 bombers, respectively, compared to roughly 5,500 for a proper 30 barrels. About two barrels of Combat Marshmallow went into kegs, and a full-scale draft release is coming in early January.
Given the size of the Chicago craft-beer market and the demand for Solemn Oath's beers, a few thousand bottles won't last long. (John Barley says both tap-room releases attracted lines of people 30 or 40 deep, waiting outside in the cold for the doors to open.) Solemn Oath's distinctive black-and-gray labels—and the even more distinctive artwork of muralist Jourdon Gullett—will at least make it easier to spot the bottles in the wild. If you've done more than glance at my photos, you've noticed the ingeniously placed shiny bits on the labels. The brewery prints on metallized paper, with an opaque white base coat under the black and gray ink. Gaps in that base coat let the brilliant foil show through.
Solemn Oath managing partner Joe Barley (John's brother) kindly dropped off bottles of both beers at my office last week, but to avoid repeating myself I'm reviewing only Combat Marshmallow. My post on Ravaged by Vikings went into some detail—I compared it to mango, peach, grapefruit, dry plum wine, mellow green onion, and the pineapple drinking vinegar I tried in 2010 at Portland Thai restaurant Pok Pok, among other things—and I don't think I'm likely to improve on that description now.
Besides, Combat Marshmallow is a brand-new beer, as I think I mentioned. Head brewer Tim Marshall gave it that name, but I couldn't reach him to ask why.
Combat Marshmallow smells prominently of bittersweet chocolate and burnt coffee, with something pleasantly rich like molasses bread rounding things out underneath. Columbus and Chinook hops give a bracing, lively brightness to the aroma with a combo of pine, cedar, spearmint, grilled pineapple, pink grapefruit, and tangerine peel. This is obviously a ludicrously hoppy stout—even if you don't read the label, which somewhat disturbingly promises "a massive resinous, piney American hop girth," your nose will tell you that much.
Combat Marshmallow has a grain bill heavy on malt that's been roasted to within an inch of its life—dark Munich, roasted barley, extra dark crystal—and those burnt flavors are just as powerful on the palate as they are in the aroma. Because you can't smell sweet, though, you might be surprised to discover that the taste of this beer is also swimming with fruity, desserty craziness, including milk chocolate, date, caramelized sugar, dark raisin, dried apricot, and candied orange. And don't forget those gale-force hops, which rush in at once and linger to dominate the finish with an amazingly persistent, mouth-coating bitterness that's mostly sharp pine, astringent resin, and grapefruit pith. It's a small miracle that so many extreme flavors, pulling in so many different directions, hang together in Combat Marshmallow—and even add up to something delicious.
What's the difference between an extremely hoppy double stout and, say, an imperial black IPA? Nomenclature, maybe. That said, both of the local beers I've tried that I'd put in a category with this one identify themselves as stouts: Pipeworks' Close Encounter and Three Floyds' Toxic Revolution. Combat Marshmallow is cheaper than both and easier to find than the latter, which as far as I know was a one-off beer.
For the foreseeable future, Solemn Oath plans to release two bottled beers every month, in batches about the same size as the current pair. In January the releases will be Butterfly Flashmob (a Belgian-style IPA) and Death by Viking (the imperial version of Ravaged by Vikings—apparently they work one-on-one when it's time to finish the job). The brewery has also made its first Belgian-style tripel, called Interrobang, which is due for a draft release by the end of December.
I already posted a shit-ton of Viking metal when I reviewed Ravaged by Vikings, or else I'd go that route now—it's not like marshmallow-themed metal songs are thick on the ground. I could find only one, by Albuquerque band Leeches of Lore: this is "Savory Marshmallow," from the 2012 album Frenzy, Ecstasy.
The "combat" half of "Combat Marshmallow" works a lot better, since so many metal bands have been obsessed with warfare—I'd post my favorite, Bolt Thrower, except I already did that when I reviewed Founders' Bolt Cutter last fall. Fortunately there's Hail of Bullets, starring inimitable vocalist Martin van Drunen, better known as front man of Asphyx. (He also sang in Bolt Thrower for a spell in the mid-90s.) "Unsung Heroes" comes from the 2010 album On Divine Winds; the band released its third full-length, III: The Rommel Chronicles, in October.
"No Viking metal" doesn't mean we're going to get out of here without any Viking-related foolishness at all, though. At Friday's tap-room release of Ravaged by Vikings, fans brought their own silly hats—I suppose Solemn Oath isn't like Simon's, where there's a Viking helmet just hanging out behind the bar in case somebody spots all five secret animals in the hunters' mural. Tap-room manager Erin Lowder snapped this picture. Something tells me it's not a candid shot.
Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.