3Beans, 4Beans, 5Beans. As much as this sounds like the beginning of a children’s nursery rhyme, Sixpoint Brewery’s Beans series of imperial porters is a distinctly adult pleasure. With the recent release of 5Beans, it’s a great time to revisit my own history with the beers and see how the newest entry stacks up.
First seeing wide release in 2013, 3Beans incorporated cacao, coffee, and romano beans, a longtime barley replacement that added heft to an already sizable malt profile. At 85 IBU, it had a much more notable hop undercurrent than its descendants, but the bitterness served mainly to balance the roasty, coffee-forward primary flavors. Aged on oak, this beer was extremely smooth, with a delicate mouthfeel and a complexity that benefited from but certainly didn’t require some short-term aging.
As a relative newcomer to the world of craft brewing, 3Beans was my gateway to the dark side. Weaned on IPAs, I tread carefully around porters and stouts, fearing the full stomach and cloudy mind that often accompanies the category’s heavy hitters. For me, 3Beans was a revelation: big dark beers didn’t have to have a syrupy mouthfeel, be overly boozy, and leave you slumped in your couch. As a caffeine-infused pick-me-up, 3Beans could keep your night going instead of ending it prematurely.
For a few years, it looked like 3Beans was destined to dwell solely in the realm of memory. Though the first release was popular, the brewing process for 3Beans was lengthy and expensive. At a Sixpoint-themed beer dinner in early 2014, a distributor rep told me that new batches would cost too much to be sold at competitive prices.
But in the summer of 2015, the drought ended. 4Beans debuted as a distant cousin of its predecessor; brewers not only added Madagascar vanilla beans to the mix, but also lowered the IBU to 40 and skipped the oak aging. 4Beans was certainly a great beer, but the vanilla came on a bit strong relative to the other flavors. Combined with the other changes, the resulting beer lacked the complexity that made 3Beans a masterpiece.
Nevertheless, I needed to get my fill, fearing another year without #Beans. From the beer’s July release date, I saved several 4-packs so that I could consume them when the time was right. One day in the dead of winter provided the perfect opportunity. In a Philadelphia bus station, I watched ice cake the windows, waiting for a guest to depart and preparing myself for the ride home to Southern Delaware. A trip that normally took 2 hours extended from mid-morning long into the afternoon, my tiny Honda Civic whipped by a maniacal blizzard, cars looping haphazardly like the drunks I myself hoped to emulate if I ever made it home. When I finally did, I was too exhausted to do anything but climb into bed, but I had a plan, a snifter, and a cold can of 4Beans that needed to warm up anyway. When I woke from my nap, it was there at my bedside, a caffeinated gateway to recovery.
That brings us to the most recent release in the #Beans series. The 5th bean? Black cardamom. For those unfamiliar with this spice, it’s somewhat risky, almost dangerous to use, requiring expert precision. Cooks know that a little cardamom goes a long way, and other brewers have experimented with the pod to disastrous effect. (In the interest of protecting the not-so-innocent, names will not be named.) A spice as strong as cardamom requires a sure and gentle hand and likely some experimentation to boot.
Sixpoint has referred to 5Beans as their “bazaar porter,” a nod to the Turkish origins of that fifth bean. As such, you’d expect the cardamom to be front and center without dominating the beer’s core flavors, a difficult balancing act to say the least. Going into my first batch, I admit to some degree of trepidation.
So how does the latest incarnation hold up?
The beer pours completely black, with a tan pillowy head dissipating steadily over the first 2-3 minutes. It recedes more gently after that, leaving a solid ¼ inch cap and a straight line of lacing around the rim.
The aroma leads with vanilla, followed by strong coffee and hazelnut creamer, maybe even a hint of Nutella. The flavor doesn’t quite match, with cardamom strong up front, followed by a roasty bitterness from the coffee and malts. There’s a faint smokiness to that bitter quality, which might come from the cardamom if it was dried.
As the beer warms, notes of menthol and dark chocolate surface. There’s a medicinal quality as well, possibly camphor, again emphasizing that cardamom. Hop flavors are certainly not dominant, but what’s present leans towards piney and resinous.
All of my tastings were within about two months of the packaging date, but so far 5Beans is a bit thinner than past offerings and not quite as smooth, though it’s still quite easy to drink. The alcohol warms the throat steadily and slowly for a few minutes after the first couple sips, but the overall impression isn’t boozy at all.
In sum, 5Beans has branched off in an admirably distinct direction from the #Beans that came before. It’s hard to knock a beer like this simply because it’s not as great as the legends it follows…so I won’t.