Locked in the Cellar: 2015 Muskoka Brewery Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown is what prompted me to start sampling beers from my cellar — and more broadly speaking, to re-animate this blog after neglecting it for several months.

It’s amazing what having a surplus of free time and nowhere to go can do for one’s creativity, and it seems I’m not the only one having this revelation. A buddy of mine here in Edmonton, Tofor, said he has been similarly inspired to fire up his blog after an extended hiatus.

When I posted a picture of some of the beers in my cellar a few weeks ago, Tofor remarked he also had an aged bottle of Muskoka Brewery’s Winter Beard Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout. We decided it would be fun to review the beer individually, in our own homes, and post the results on our respective sites. Although we didn’t discuss our findings beforehand, our observations turned out to be pretty similar.

My bottle of Winter Beard is a 2015 vintage that, according to my records, I bought in February 2016. I don’t have any specific tasting notes for a fresh bottle, but I recall enjoying how all the elements hung together and deciding to buy a second bottle for aging.

The aged bottle got off to a promising start, with an attractive tan head and an aroma of cocoa nibs and coffee. There wasn’t any cranberry apparent on the nose.

The flavour started where the nose left off: coffee and roasty malt that bordered on acrid. But the smooth cocoa hinted at in the aroma just wasn’t there. I could taste cranberry but had to reach for it, and the characteristic tartness was gone — it was more solvent-like, like nail polish remover. The body was slightly thin and the small, prickly carbonation felt out of place for the style.

When this beer was fresh, its disparate elements came together and made it an enjoyable sipper. Over time, it’s like those components have pulled apart and are no longer working together. The finish was ashy, not smooth.

The whole thing felt rough around the edges — like time had coarsened those edges instead of smoothing them out. Not all beers improve with age, nor do they keep improving indefinitely. At nearly five years old, it’s likely the fault here is mine, not the beer’s. This beer may still have been on the upside when it was two or three years old.

There’s a sizable minority in the beer community that thinks cellaring is bullshit — that the results aren’t worth the effort and expense put into putting bottles aside. Experiences like this are ammunition for the cellar skeptics, but to me they’re more of a reminder that cellaring is not an exact science.

This is a good argument for buying potential cellar beers in threes: one to enjoy right away, as a “control,” with two set aside for aging. The second beer becomes a bellweather: if it’s still drinking nicely after a couple of years, you can keep aging the third bottle. If it feels like the beer is beginning to go downhill, drink the third bottle sooner rather than later. (Added hint: aging two bottles also gives you more options, like setting one aside for tasting in a multi-year vertical.)

Even though I accept that cellaring is a bit of a gamble, this review and the previous one have been a bit anticlimactic considering the whole point of the exercise is to break up the monotony of physical distancing. I haven’t decided which beer I’ll review next, but I’m going to try to choose something with a more reliable track record for aging. I think that will make things more entertaining all around.