Beer Wednesday: El Camino (un)Real Black Ale by Stone, Firestone Walker, and 21st Amendment

The El Camino (un)Real Black Ale is another collaboration effort initiated by Stone Brewing and featuring Firestone Walker and 21st Amendment. (We previously sampled this as an adjunct to the FIWK IPA Tasting.) One of Stone's previous collaborative beers, the Kona Coffee Macadamia Nut Porter, was a delicious product of their team-up with Kona Brewing and a Hawai'i homebrewer. Much like that beer, the El Camino has a particular mission in mind. It seeks to use local flora found along the historic El Camino Real in California and create a unique black ale. They achieved their goal.

This beer elicited a strong reaction. All of it was positive, although the reaction wasn't so much "this is crazy good!" as it was "this is crazy interesting!" I actually went out and bought more of this beer so I could have more people try it. It's a totally unique and interesting beer and I really wanted to share it. Both Natalie from the sustainable food blog Meeting Lunch and FIWK co-author Aaron (from the recent tech comments beatdown of me) had this beer also.

The label says it's "ale brewed with fennel seed, chia seed, and pink peppercorns - with mission figs added." If that sounds unique, the aroma backs it up. Many of us commented that it smelled interesting... some people thought it was like iced coffee, others said flat Coca-Cola; I thought it smelled a little like the Dr. Pepper knock-off brands like Mr. Skipper or maybe RC Cola, mixed with some V8. Sounds kinda weird and gross, but isn't gross I promise.

The flavor also represented that weird confluence of inputs. Our comments ranged from coffee, vegetables, herbs, bitter chocolate, dried fruit, to black licorice. All over the place, totally full of flavor, and yet it all came together in a satisfying way. I had no idea what fennel was at the time, by the way, but it turns out it's a plant I'm super familiar with (grows all near my house) that smells just like black licorice. So Natalie's "tastes like fennel" smartass remark is well founded.

It's not the most drinkable beer of all time however. It's 9.5% abv, and I agree with Natalie that it lacks a smooth texture and mouth feel. The flavors are great but it can get a little overwhelming. On the finish it never really smooths out and can't decide if it's giving out veggie, coffee, or cola flavors at any given moment. I really liked the visual representation of the flavor wheel on this 33beers review which reminds me of those LSD-infused spider webs.

As you can see, reviews for this beer can be all over the place but are mostly positive. I agree generally with the Full Pint's review and somewhat disagree with Mike Loves Beer's review. The review at Thank Heaven for Beer nails the essential point here - the El Camino (un)Real is super unique. For that reason alone, I highly recommend it.

PS - I learned the actual definition of a bunghole from the above Stone blog.


  1. One of the wordiest reviews I've ever done, but this beer deserves it. Love when a brewer (or team of brewers, in this case) takes a chance doing something new and interesting and it really pays off.

    This also reinforces my opinion that a black ale, black lager, etc. is a really nice style for interesting flavors.

    By the way, I'm a huge fan of 33beers now. They are doing a 999 beer reviews thing in 999 days which is enjoyable.

  2. I remember there being a distinct difference between the initial taste and the after taste, both enjoyable. As it goes down you can taste all the plants/beer/licorice flavors. It is not so different that you ever think it could be classified as something other than beer. Similar to stouts and porters in color and taste it easily fits in this category. Although I enjoy this Black Ale significantly more than a Guinness. I felt like drinking a Guinness, but with more it didn't exactly feel like a Guinness. Guinness would be a little thicker or creamier...a little extra foam...

    The after taste seemed to differ for most people and for me was a coffee/chocolate flavor (but not a mocha). I want to say that this welcoming enjoyable after taste led to everyone's positive experience with the beer. People liked discussing the remnants on their tongue and weren't quick to wash it down.
    This is a beer successfully designed to be savored. I can't think of a better way to describe it. You can't really chug it, but you can't sip it either. You take a good healthy swig with your nose in the pint glass, set the beer down and reflect before repeating the process.

  3. My "smartass remark is well founded?!"

    Gee. Thanks.

    I think I might be this beer's biggest fan. I really enjoyed it on both times that we tasted it. I agree that there is A LOT going on, which is ultimately a little distracting, but I really enjoyed the creativity that went into brewing this black ale.

    Unlike Aaron, I am not a huge Guinness fan. This black ale had all the flavor without overpowering bitterness or heaviness.

    For me, the flavors were cacao nibs, iced coffee, and dark red fruit. The texture was a bit flat cherry cola- more surprising than at all unpleasant.

    I don't know that I would want to pair this beer with a meal- it's meant to be explored on its own.

  4. I am not a Guinness fan either. I was using Guinness as a basis for comparison. I guess I could have tried to compare it to a Newcastle (very similar texture), but from the beers in our benchmark, Guinness is probably the closest.

  5. Haha you're welcome, GotGame. Whatever don't feign outrage, you know you meant it as a smartass remark.

    Aaron I think you absolutely nailed the summary of this beer with your first comment. Completely agree.

    GotGame those are definitely flavors I found too, although you got more red fruit than I did. I agree that the way we talk about it - flat cherry cola, vegetables, V8, cacao nibs - might not sound like a delicious combo. Readers will just have to trust us that it comes together in an interesting, rather than appalling, flavor profile.

  6. I haven't read a single thing of this post, but feel as though I HAVE to try this beer. Why? Oreo.

  7. I'm guilty like Scott and only skimmed the article, but I need to commend Royce on getting the glottal in the correct spot and thus correctly spelling Hawai'i.

    An idiosyncrasy of the Hawaiian language that so often goes overlooked. Mahalo, brother.