Like Fine Wine
Beer, the oft-maligned blue-collar drink, offers an amazing variety of styles and remarkably complex and often subtle flavours. Brewing is at least as old as winemaking, its history going back as far as the ancient Sumerians, some 5,000 years ago. It was the natural beverage of choice in those parts of the world where grains, rather than grapes, were most readily available. In Europe, countries bordering the Mediterranean had no trouble making vino and remained wine drinkers, while more northern regions naturally turned to this fizzy concoction.
At its best, beer challenges the senses in much the same way wine does. Until quite recently in Canada, as in the US, most ales were of the standard, mass-produced kind, showing little variety or complexity. This has all changed for the better (see “Renaissance,” in Tidings’ July/August 2008 issue). We now import some of the best beers in the world and, more importantly, a new generation of imaginative brewers has sprung up all over this continent. Indeed, North Americans are creating the boldest and most innovative brews on the planet. It has been said that we live in a golden age of wine. That is every bit as true for the brewers’ art. It’s time to wake up and smell the hops.
Beer in the early Middle Ages was rather crudely made and easily spoiled. Murky brews were sometimes made more palatable by adding spices. It is only with the advent of hops that real quality and flavour became possible. The flowers of a prolific vine-like plant, hops were first used as a preservative in beer some time around 800 to 900 AD.
Nowadays, hops play an important and often definitive role in creating style and flavour. The vine grows in a wide variety of locations and, as internationally-known Canadian beer expert Stephen Beaumont has noted in his excellent book, Premium Beer Drinker’s Guide (Firefly Books 2000), there is a real parallel here with grapevines. “Each hop genus,” he says, “is as individual and distinct as any wine grape variety. And like grapes, hops are affected by the soil, climate and circumstances in which they were grown.” The water, malt and yeast used in the brew clearly play important parts as well, but the type of hop and how it’s used lend unique qualities to each beer.
What makes a beer age-worthy?
A good rule of thumb is that strong beers make good keepers. Typically, brews for the cellar will run to about 8 per cent alcohol or higher. Generally, they will be darker in colour rather than golden or light amber, although there are exceptions. Beers that can age, like many wines, will drop a fair bit of sediment, creating a cloudy appearance when poured. With richly concentrated darker ones, this does not much matter, but many drinkers find it undesirable in lighter-coloured beers.
Styles for cellaring
Germany and Britain are both well-known, but when it comes to diversity of style, neither of these brewing giants can match tiny Belgium. The universally admired Belgian Trappist ales, brewed by Trappist monks since the Middle Ages, are enormously complex, powerful and age-worthy beverages. The best, like great wines, need several years in the cellar before fully displaying their amazing qualities. The longest-lived need a dozen years or more to fully mature and can live for decades.
Despite its great diversity, German brewing has not laid much emphasis on aging. England, on the other hand, has created memorable long-lived brews. Barley wine is the strongest English style, so named because its alcoholic strength is similar to wine. Powerful versions can hit 12 per cent. The style is not as popular as it once was in the UK, but it has been enthusiastically adopted by American and (some) Canadian brewers.
English Old Ale is comparable to barley wine but aims more for complexity than maximizing alcoholic strength. One of the most highly prized is the very rare Thomas Hardy from Dorset, which Stephen Beaumont says needs at least five years in the cellar and will continue to improve for much longer. Some years ago in England, I tasted another example, the Marston’s Owd Roger on draft. Brewed according to a 350-year-old recipe, one pint was equivalent to eight nips of scotch. It was unctuously rich with sweet malty and dried-fruit flavours and rancio character comparable to some fortified wines. Bottled versions would develop for many years. Specially released “Winter Warmers” and various festive ales fall into a broadly similar category.
Russian Imperial Stout is another English style; it was originally exported to slake the thirst of the Russian Imperial court. It was brewed to a higher strength in order to survive the rigours of the journey by sea and overland. While not as long-lived as barley wine or old ale, it can significantly improve with additional bottle aging. Imperial Pale Ale, another style developed for export, was originally brewed for shipment to British troops in India. It is usually stronger than most pale ales, but its longevity comes from the extra hops that serve as an effective preservative, adding plenty of tangy bitterness to the flavour. Although it does keep well, it will not develop further in the cellar.
South of the border, it seems, anything goes. The brewing scene in the US has become bewildering in its diversity. Much like Australian winemakers did before taking the wine world by storm, American brewers have thrown away the brewing rulebook. Boldly individualistic brewers have blurred the lines between traditional beers, creating many unique new styles. In this dynamic culture, traditional descriptions are no longer very meaningful. American brewers are pushing the brewing art to its absolute limit, including developing the world’s strongest beers. The Boston Beer Company (of Samuel Adams fame) has achieved alcohol levels nudging 25 per cent by aging an already powerful brew in bourbon-whiskey casks, then finishing it in sherry and Madeira casks from Portugal. The resulting monster — Samuel Adams Utopias — definitely needs additional time in the cellar. Many American breweries boast at least one or two big, age-worthy beers.
Can we benefit?
Age-worthy Canadian beers are not that common but they do exist. In Quebec, Unibroue has developed world-class beers in the Belgian Trappist style. Beers such as La Fin du Monde, Trois Pistoles and Don-de-Dieu will age for at least three years while La Maudite is good for five years or more. McAuslan’s St-Ambroise Vintage Ale is made in the style of an English strong ale or barley wine and is similarly age-worthy. Some craft breweries in Ontario also produce the occasional strong brew that will benefit by aging. In Nova Scotia, both Halifax craft breweries have released serious, age-worthy brews. We’re well on our way.
A Selection for the Cellar
Bavik Brewery Petrus Triple Ale (7.5%), Belgium ($5.79/330 ml)
Although not described as a Lambic, this powerful brew has the funky character of wild yeast on the nose with some bitter astringency. Dried-fruit sweetness kicks in on the palate with a long, fruity sweet finish closing with a touch of dryness. It really packs some punch.
Duvel Belgian Golden Ale (8.1%), Belgium ($3.79/330 ml)
Top-fermented, with a secondary fermentation in the bottle, this beer will be cloudy unless allowed to stand and then carefully poured, leaving the yeasty residue behind. Belgians will normally opt to drink it cloudy with the residue included. Head is thick, creamy and remarkably persistent. Lightly fruity, nutty and bready yeasty aromas lead into delicate fruitiness and light dryness on the finish. Pleasantly creamy texture and mild flavours despite the high alcohol.
Liefmans Brewery Goudenband Ale (8%), Belgium ($4.49/330 ml)
Goudenband means “wedding ring,” although I am not sure of the significance of this with regard to this very strong, assertively flavoured darker ale. The beer has a Champagne-style cork and can age well for many years. It has certain wildness on the nose, together with some dusty dryness and a trace of sourness. Strongly fruity-sweet flavours linger on the palate.
Orval Trappist Ale (6.3%), Belgium ($3.79/330 ml)
Complex sweet and slightly sour scents combine with hints of gameyness and traces of subtle spice. It has more delicacy on the palate than you would expect, despite the relatively high alcohol, showing subtle orange and spicy flavours that suggest pairing with Asian food. Real finesse.
Fuller’s Limited-Edition Bottle-Conditioned Vintage Ale 2006 ($7.49/8.5%), London, United Kingdom ($7.49/500 ml)
This unique ale smells almost like wine except for the obvious rich fruity malt aroma. There are also scents of dried spicy orange peel, a hint of chocolate and a subtle trace of hops. Rich sweet fruity malt fills the mouth, finishing with spice and bitter baker’s chocolate. A heart-warming winter ale, just as good as a glass of Port on a cold winter night.
Rogue Imperial Stout (11%), Newport, Oregon ($4.99/355 ml)
Rogue Ales, of Newport, Oregon, are seriously dedicated brewers. The brewery bottles its products with oxygen-absorbing caps, brown glass for better shelf life and plenty of hops to provide stability. Rogues Imperial Stout uses multiple hops and malt varieties, rolled oats and a couple of secret ingredients. Opening with bitter chocolate and floral/herbal aromatics, it shows both sweet fruity flavours and emphatic bitterness. This powerful winter warmer will develop with further aging and needs at least a year or two in bottle.
Rogue Old Crustacean (11.5%), Newport, Oregon ($4.99/355 ml)
An English-style barley wine weighing in at 11.5%. An unfiltered, intensely rich and complex malty brew which has been described as the “Cognac of beers,” it should be aged, preferably for several years.
Garrison Brewery Premium Halifax Black Lager (8.3%), Halifax, Nova Scotia ($5.95/500 ml)
Brooding aromas of dark dried fruit, molasses and licorice introduce rich, slightly sweet dark fruity malt and chocolate flavours. Very smooth on the palate, it finishes with fruity and moderately dry bitter notes. A connoisseur’s brew to be enjoyed as a sipper on a cold winter’s night.
Propellor Brewery Revolution Russian Imperial Stout (8%), Halifax, Nova Scotia ($2.75/341 ml)
Propellor’s seasonal winter brew shows dark-roast-coffee colour with a roasted malt and fruit aroma and flavours of dark chocolate, black coffee and fruity molasses. Smoothly textured, it ends with a very long bitter grip. A serious beer that will improve with further keeping.