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Presumably to teach me a lesson for my sarcastic tweets concerning the launch of their latest imperial stouts, Galway Bay Brewery very kindly shipped me a set of them just before Christmas. I mean, I assumed it was a mistake and kept them packed and ready for collection until February, but when it looked like the recall notice wasn't coming, I slid the lid off the box.

As well as the three stouts, which I'll get to, there was an interloping bottle of barrel-aged barley wine: Boulevardier. This 13% ABV monster was created in collaboration with Wrocław's Browar Stu Mostów and has spent two years in bourbon and vermouth barrels. A Boulevardier is a cocktail, I had to be told. I'm the wrong person to assess whether it is accurately represented as beer here. It's very nice, though, and 100% beery, not spirituous or cocktailish. The main flavour is malt: treacly brown bread and plum pudding, with a sticky-toffee sauce texture to match. Chocolate of the sort you'd find in good porter or stout is central also. There's a certain wine-and-herb complexity around this, which I'm guessing is the vermouth, and some of bourbon's vanilla, but not too much. In fact it's all very mellow and well-integrated. Despite being mostly quite sweet, there's a lovely dry finish, which is where it resembles a vermouth cocktail most. Overall, it's a beauty, and excellent nightcap material. But I was only getting started.

What caused the stir over the new Two Hundred Fathoms is that it's been a while. Previously an annual release in February, they skipped 2019 while they were moving breweries, then rescheduled the 2020 launch to the end of the year: arguably a more sensible time to be putting out a fancy box set of barrel aged imperial stouts. The 2020 vintage is the usual 10% ABV. The flavour unfolds gradually, beginning with sweet honeycomb, then Fisherman's Friend, strong filter coffee, herbal liqueur, hard caramels coated in chocolate, and pungent French cigarettes. It's a very 20th century sort of combination; the sort of thing you'd drink during a war, at a café in a devastated city: hard, uncompromising, and thought provoking. I prefer something a bit straighter in my imperial stouts, like a proper kick of green bitter hops. This offers something different from that, and very different from what whiskey casks normally impart. The raw and rough seaside-in-winter kept me interested for the whole half litre, and intrigued me regarding what was to come next.

With Two Hundred Fathoms being such a complex beauty, and its ageing potential well-established, I was more than a little sceptical of the brewery's decision to pastrify their stocks of the 2018 vintage. But they did, in two different ways. Reckoning it would be the more subtle of the pair, I first opened the Calendar Coffee: Teamwork Espresso edition. My photography was too slow to catch the head on this but it was an impressively dark shade of brown, for the few fizzling seconds it existed. The beer, its alcohol boosted to 12%, smells vinous and boozy: it has definitely been aged. The coffee is surprisingly subtle, and is actually well within the bounds of what you would expect from dark malt alone. That side of the picture is relaxed enough to allow the mature plum and raisin notes come through. The end result is a mix of strong and roast-forward coffee with softer and warming Pedro Ximinez sherry. I liked it a lot. This is a whole different perspective on the base beer, and allowing the brewery to do the ageing seems like a very good idea.

The second of the set is with Madagascan Vanilla Beans & Toasted Coconut. The visuals are all the same, as is the ABV. However, this one tastes hotter, with a headachey mix of cough syrup and cream sherry. Once again the flavours are well integrated -- I couldn't pick out vanilla or coconut specifically -- but it's not an improvement on either of the less involved versions. The bitter herb effect is there still, but seems to have become harsher, not mellower, nor softer with the added flavours. A half litre of this was the hardest work of the set. It has its own complexity, and it's definitely not a daft novelty beer, but I found it a tough one to enjoy. This is where I thought, again, that leaving it alone to age without bells and whistles was a better idea.

I'm told this is the beginning of a new annual release cycle for Galway Bay. Later this year we'll see the 2021 vintage accompanied by more flavoured versions of the 2020, as well as a different box of unenhanced vintages. Much as I enjoyed the coffee one, it's the latter I'm looking forward to most. Big thanks to the brewery for sending me these.