Dark Days Ahead

Everything you wanted to know about Black Damnation… but were afraid to ask

READ MORE ON THE BLACK DAMNATION SERIES ON WIKIPEDIA

If Pannepot is the beer that put them on the map and Black Albert is the one that consolidated them, the Black Damnation series is surely the kind of beer that cements Struise into the hearts of extreme beer lovers everywhere. The project, so ambitious it verges on the ridiculous, has proven extremely successful and the latest release has been selling like hotcakes. But how did these beers ever come to pass in the first place, and – perhaps more importantly – where’s the project headed in the future? We pick the brain of brewmaster Urbain Coutteau and lay down the facts.

What was the inspiration for the Black Damnation project?

U: “It all started with our Black Albert. We’ve been constantly innovating and renovating recipes, aromas and flavors at Struise, and Black Albert has always proven to be very consistent. Being the huge, complex beer that it is, you can use it as a blank canvas to do whatever you want to it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t abuse it, but you get the idea. The boldness in flavor of the imperial stout gives you a lot more to work from than any other type of beer when it comes to barrel-aging. We tried to pull off a similar project with our Tsjeeses, but that wasn’t going to work. We’ve been experimenting for the Black Damnation series with over 20 different barrels, but it was never the original intention to release more than twelve.”

What exactly do you mean when you say other beers have less workable options?

U: “A beer like Black Albert will easily contain 10-12 different ingredients. A stout is free from the restrictions of, say, a blonde.  You can only use so many kinds of malts in a blonde, for example, or it obviously wouldn’t be blonde anymore. It’s things like this that make a big stout like Black Albert inherently potent enough to stand up to extensive barrel-aging.”

Lots of brewers do extreme beers these days. What makes the Black Damnation series different?

U: “Balance. That’s the key word here. There aren’t a lot of breweries that can vouch for the balance of their big beers as well as we can, mostly because we allow for plenty of maturation time. I know that might sound arrogant, but it’s true. Lots of breweries are facing much higher commercial pressure and therefore don’t allow for enough time to let the beer seep into the wood properly and extract all the flavors and aromas from the wood and whatever product was in there before.”

How was the recognizable skull logo originally conceived?

U: “Carlo (Grootaert) is a designer by trade, so I sat down with him and worked on an idea for this. He just basically starts doodling something on a piece of paper and after hours of fierce blood and guts arguments, a consensus is reached. We decided on the skull and clockwork. The inspiration for the clockwork comes from an exclusive Swiss brand of wristwatches that uses the actual internal clockwork as part of their design. I loved the look of it. It obviously has a double meaning, like everything here at Struise. The clockwork represents the monstrous difficulties and intricacies we had to overcome in the creation of this series. The skull represents madness, perhaps even insanity. We might be long dead before this thing’s finally run its course, who knows.”

Why did you end up using the old serigraphy technique on the new bottles?

U: “Brewing is not just about creativity, it’s also about overcoming a host of technical issues. One such issue was the labels. We bring out this amazing product like the beers in the Black Damnation series, and you have to slap a label on there you wouldn’t want to – pardon my French - wipe your ass with. They just look a tiny bit off-center 99% of the time, and our perfectionism both as brewers and designers protested bitterly to that. If you then have to ship it out 10,000 miles, it’s going to look disastrous when it finally hits store shelves. We went back to serigraphy, a technique long since abandoned by many brewers, because we can finally put all the information we want on it 100% straight and true. It also gives us the advantage of a very unique look these days. No matter how long the journey, it’s still going to jump out at you on store shelves.”

You also used bière belge bottles instead of the familiar champagne ones.

U: “We decided on using them because they’re tall and cylindrical, with broad shoulders. It comes in handy both from a design point of view, and also to make sure we have all the necessary information on there. These days, you have to print the title of the beer, the ABV, a best before date, a barcode, descriptions in different languages, a health warning, the pregnant lady, … that’s a lot of tidbits to fit on a single bottle. If we’d went for the champagne bottles, we could have probably only fit 75% of the information on there, but we’ve got plenty of room now. The cylindrical design also allows us to prominently print the name of the beer on the front, and all the rest is side information you’d have to turn the bottle for. That fits our design philosophy brilliantly.”

The newest entries in the Black Damnation series (XIII-XXI), which will debut on the BiercaB tap takeover in Barcelona, are called ‘Cask Strength’. Where does that name come from?

U: “In more ways than one, Cask Strength is going to be an even more extreme project than the current Black Damnations. The name comes from the fact that we don’t back-blend it with fresh product. It’s a technique that’s been around for hundreds of years. You add a fresh brew to beer that’s been barrel-aged, to make it lively and softer to the palate. Not so here. The barrel character will therefore be a lot purer in the new series. We intend to provoke the drinker. We make no illusions: Cask Strength is going to be risky business for sure. Is it a series for beer geeks? Yup. Is it a series for the more casual aficionado that wants to educate his taste buds? Definitely. It might be a little ‘out there’, but I’m convinced Belgium and the rest of the world is ready for what’s about to hit them.”

Will we be seeing a release for Cask Strength in the near future?

U: “We definitely don’t want to rush things, so we’re aiming for the same time window as with the first twelve iterations. With the obvious difference though, that we now have tons more experience both with how Black Albert reacts to different barrels, and with barrel-aging in general. Since we got our barrel room together, things have started booming beyond comprehension. There’s a more distinct feeling of control, so we’ve greatly matured ourselves along with our beers.”

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