In September, when I wrote about the launch of Marz Community Brewing, I included this aside: "They're developing a frankly insane-sounding 'umami' stout with Against the Grain in Louisville—it'll include beer aged in brandy barrels and in, get this, soy-sauce barrels."
Little did I know that the Umami Stout was already aging (it spent more than six months in the wood) and would be ready to drink by mid-November. I also left out two other important details: The beer is in fact a three-way collaboration, masterminded by a friend of Marz owner Ed Marszewski named Takeshi Yutsomashi. And it's brewed using dried shiitake mushrooms in the kettle.
The use of soy-sauce barrels seemed like such a terrible idea that I had to try the finished product, just to see if Marz could surprise me—the only time I've ever heard the words "soy sauce" in a beer-related context, nerds were complaining about the flavor of late-aughts Dark Lord. Tom Piekarz, who handles sales and marketing for Marz, brought me some of the brewery's recent bottles last week, and thanks to my pestering he included an Umami Stout. (Against the Grain shipped only a few cases of 12 to Chicago—most of it's in kegs.)
I invited over a couple friends to share the hefty 25.4-ounce bottle, enticing them with the prospect of trying the weirdest beer they'd ever heard of. Umami Stout pours pretty flat, with a few large loose bubbles, but you can kick up thin, fine head by swirling it in your glass. I was surprised to find no sediment at the bottom, given my experience cooking with dried mushrooms.
Even before our first sip, it was clear we were dealing with something strange and potentially wonderful. The rich aroma seemed fatty and almost sweet, like warmed whole milk splashed with coconut and vanilla. But it also had the intensely savory aspect of a reduced broth—the shiitakes and soy sauce came through in a pleasantly musty earthiness and a gently briny tang reminiscent of yellow miso soup or a rice porridge flecked with dried salt fish.
Actually drinking this stuff is an even odder experience. It's more velvety and unctuous than a typical imperial stout, which is really saying something—it leaves a thick film on your tongue. The oiliness never gets cloying, though, because it's cut by a mineral sparkle like the fizz of fermentation in a good kimchi and a barely perceptible saltiness that comes forward as the beer warms.
The flavor is such a jumble that it took us the whole bottle to sort it out. On one hand, you've got something powerfully savory, dominated by bitter, fatty notes—raw black walnut, dried mushroom, salted dark chocolate, burnt coffee, red miso, and maybe a bit of mirin. But there's also an undercurrent of condensed, caramelized sweetness, like medjool date and brandy, with a touch of vanilla from the oak. The beer's so dense that its 12.5 percent alcohol content is entirely imperceptible on the way down.
Does that sound delicious? Because it is. It's weird as hell, but it's delicious. Bottles of Umami Stout are all gone, at least in Chicago, but of the nine kegs Against the Grain shipped to Maria's, six have yet to be tapped. Each holds almost a half barrel, so Umami Stout should be pouring at the bar throughout the winter. It's $8 for 12 ounces, and if you've got any room in your heart at all for bizarro stunt beers, you owe it to yourself to try this one.
Starting this week, the Marz crew plan to upgrade from their current four-barrel Psycho Brew system to a ten-barrel rig. With the addition of new fermentation tanks, they hope to double their monthly output from 30 barrels to 60. A new production facility is still a ways off, so for now Marz will remain a picobrewery. Or maybe a femtobrewery.
One of the last batches on the old gear is another run of Jungle Boogie in bottles and kegs. A pale wheat ale with Mosaic hops and rooibos, it's the creation of Marz brewer Eli Espinoza, who's also a member of CHAOS Brew Club. I fell in love with Jungle Boogie in October, when it first came out—it tastes like peach iced tea and fresh blueberries, and it's unlike any other beer I've ever had. It'll probably cost you $7 or $8 for a slim 16.9-ounce bottle, but it's worth it. When I ordered a glass at the Hopleaf last week, the bartender said, "Ah, Marz—the new Pipeworks." So take that how you will.
Sometimes metal bands try strange combinations too, and in that vein I'm posting a new song from Stargazer, an Australian supergroup of sorts that includes members of Mournful Congregation and Cauldron Black Ram. A Merging to the Boundless came out two weeks ago on Nuclear War Now!, and it combines florid, eccentric blackened death metal with an approach to the electric bass that would sometimes sound more at home on a late-70s jazz fusion record. Again, it's weird as hell, but it works.