CL Tampa Bay's Beer Issue 2019: Cigar City's iconic Hunahpu's Imperial Stout remains different but same

The collectible brew celebrates its 10th year.

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click to enlarge Two vintages of the uber-collectible brew. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
Two vintages of the uber-collectible brew.

Back when he was working here at CL as business development director and an ad rep, Chris Madalena was THE rare beer guy on staff — the special release guy, the bottle share guy, the guy with the collection of brews that might be for drinking, but definitely aren’t for drinking right now. He was also the guy who helped facilitate most if not all of the beers that local breweries whipped up for CL as Best of the Bay swag or for other special occasions. Chris helped me make invaluable connections when I began the Meet The Brewers series several years ago, and was always quick to offer information or an opinion on a wide variety of beer-related topics.

So it makes since that, when Chris left us a few months ago, it was to join the team at Tampa’s own, legendary Cigar City Brewing, where he’s taken the reins of the label’s annual El Catador Club, which specializes in exclusive barrel-aged releases, as well as the role of special events manager.

His timing couldn’t have been better — or worse, depending on your work ethic. He joined the staff just in time for this year’s Tampa Bay Beer Week — which just happens to include the 10th anniversary of Hunahpu’s Day, the world-famous (and, in some years past, insanely chaotic) release party for CCB’s iconic, collectible Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, taking place this year on Saturday, March 9.

“It’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation,” he said, grinning, as we sat down at a table in the tasting room at Cigar City’s Spruce Street headquarters. “There’s a lot of moving parts... you could have a whole team handle just this event. There are a lot of things going on, it’s super crunch time.”

Cigar City has some twists in store for this year’s Hunahpu’s Day. The event is returning to Raymond James Stadium, and will introduce two new stouts to the Hunahpu “family,” available exclusively to higher-tier ticketholders: Xbalanque, rested on Amburana wood, and Xquic, a maple variant. But the original is still the star of the show, a highly sought-after item among beer aficionados around the world for a decade now.

Is the original still the original, though?

Of course it is. That doesn’t mean, however, that Hunahpu’s flavor profile hasn’t varied to some degree over the years; it’s bound to happen organically with any brew of Hunahpu’s complexity. And some fans actually buy their bottles to drink them — Cigar City would be remiss not to allow for some deviations in nuance for imbibers to marvel or argue over once they crack their bottles.

Not that many folks get the chance to crack bottles of the famous stout from two years’ batches side-by-side to compare and contrast them directly, but Chris and I were at Tampa Bay’s highest-profile craft beer brand for exactly that purpose.

“The formula itself, the base beer doesn’t get tweaked to much,” Chris said as he produced two bottles of the coveted stout, one from 2017 and one from 2018 (this year’s batch wasn’t quite ready). “It’ll get tweaked slightly depending on the hops that are available, it might vary a bit in terms of the treatment — the cocoa nibs, the vanilla, those will change from year to year.

“We’re hoping for a certain type of experience, we want a beer that’s identifiable year over year, but I don’t think [the brewers] want to have the exact same beer year after year.”

We tried the 2017 first. Upon opening the bottle, there was a definite element of coffee to the scent, but it didn’t register nearly as strongly in the flavor. More readily recognizable in the taste were the spices, particularly a slight but identifiable undercurrent of cinnamon. 

“The put a lot of cinnamon in, but it’s subtle,” Chris said.

There’s also a freshness and a barely-there warmth from ancho chiles.

“You taste the plant, not the heat,” said Chris. “I’m not somebody who’s looking for heat, I’m a hot sauce pussy. It’s gonna warm you on the esophagus, not burn your mouth.” He added that “from ‘15 and earlier, [the heat] wasn’t as strong.”

The 2018 bottle was very similar, yet... roastier? The flavors seemed more evenly distributed into a complete whole, making individual elements harder to identify while providing a slightly maltier, beer-ier experience. 

Which was better? That would depend on the taster’s own palate and inclinations. But if the brewing process continues in the direction hinted at by tasting the past two vintages in rapid succession, Hunahpu’s Day 2019 attendees are in for an extremely satisfying balance of wow-factor ingredients and old-world craft.

“Now that we’re ten years in,” Chris said, “people want something a little different.”

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