Locked in the Cellar

Edifying Edition/Locked in the Cellar mashup: closing 2020 with Trappist Westvleteren 12

When it got time to sit down in the fall and write my column for the December issue of Edify, it was apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would lay waste to my usual year-end theme: beer recommendations for holiday entertaining.

Like so many Alberta breweries, I adjusted my plan to adapt to the less-than-ideal situation we’ve all found ourselves in. Instead, I did my best to wring a bit of humanity and humour from a year that has brought so much death, anxiety and uncertainty by asking a few folks in Edmonton’s craft beer community what beer they planned to drink to usher out 2020.

I capped off 2020 with a bottle of Trappist Westvleteren 12. As I said in the article, the end of 2020 called for the kind of beer that’s best enjoyed with slow sips and quiet contemplation. I didn’t feel there was much reason for a metaphorical victory lap with a celebratory beer. In the back of my head, I was also thinking that if 2021 is any worse, I should get around to drinking a rare beauty like Westy 12 before the world totally falls apart.

Westvleteren 12 is the object of considerable reverence in the beer world — and it’s totally justified: it’s a delicious, complex beer with rich dried fruit flavours of raisins, dates and prunes. Its considerable 10.2 per cent alcohol is well hidden and it goes down smoothly with a pleasant, spreading warmth.

But there’s also no denying that at least some of Westvleteren 12’s mystique and its acclaim as “best in the world” has to do with the fact that it’s so hard to find. The monks of the Saint-Sixtus abbey famously refuse to allow anyone to resell the beers they brew. There’s a thriving underground market for Westvleteren beers, but the only legitimate ways to get them were by drinking them in the café at Saint-Sixtus or picking them up at the abbey — a process, which, until recently, involved using an archaic telephone ordering system. The café isn’t open for dine-in service during the pandemic, and the monks’ ordering system has moved online but appears equally byzantine and sales are currently restricted to people with an address in Belgium.

(If you’re intrigued by Westvleteren 12 but have never tried it, don’t despair: St. Bernardus Abt 12, commercially brewed and widely available in Canada, is a more than acceptable substitute. The St. Bernardus brewery in Watou, Belgium, brewed Westvleteren 12 under contract for the monks for several decades. Today’s Abt 12 is brewed with the same recipe the monks provided in 1946, with a couple of key distinctions: the monks of Saint-Sixtus use a different yeast strain today and the water used by each brewery imparts subtle differences.)

The monks of Saint-Sixtus made an exception to their ban on commercial sales in 2012, when they exported a quantity of Westvleteren 12 to help finance an expansion of the abbey. I seized the opportunity and bought several bottles at the time, sampling a couple of them fresh and keeping six or seven for special occasions.

The bottle I opened on New Year’s Eve was my last one. Was it worth holding onto for eight years? Yes and no. The common wisdom is that Belgian quadrupels like Westy 12 peak after about five years of aging, and experience has led me to the same conclusion. Make no mistake: my eight-year-old bottle was still delicious and I enjoyed it tremendously, but it had lost a lot of the complexity that makes the beer so highly regarded. The layers of dried fruit had receded and were replaced mainly by sherry-like notes and some cola. The thick head and rich mouthfeel had changed to a quickly-dissipating ring of foam and a thinner body. Even in this state, it was a tremendous beer, but it didn’t deliver the same sensory experience.

But the biggest difference between this bottle of Westy 12 and others I had enjoyed wasn’t a product of age: it was the absence of the shared experience that so often goes hand-in-hand with drinking great beer.

I shared the second-last bottle in my collection a couple of years ago with our friend Almas, who was in Edmonton visiting my wife, Lea, and me. Almas isn’t a beer nerd like me, but she’s one of those people who has a good palate and a genuine love of great food and drink. In a similar way, I’ve always valued the fact that Almas has viewed me as a kindred spirit in this sense: I’m not a wine person, but Ali has always made sure that I get a glass of the good stuff along with everyone else, confident that I will fully appreciate it. (And I do.)

It was in this spirit that I decided to open a bottle of Westvleteren 12 and share it with Almas after I had done some evangelizing about beer over supper at our place. While I recall that the beer hadn’t quite fallen off as much as the one I had on New Year’s Eve, my most vivid recollection of that second-last bottle was seeing that metaphorical light switch on as Ali realized just how diverse and complex beer can be. Being able to share that beer, and my enthusiasm for it, is a big — and inextricable — part of why I enjoyed it so much.

With my supply of Westvleteren 12 exhausted, it looks like the only way I’ll be able to acquire more is by visiting the abbey in Belgium. That would mean being able to travel again and being able to enjoy it in the company of friends and loved ones. And that will beat a dusty old bottle from my cellar every damn time.

Locked in the Cellar: Last Best A.E. Cross Barley Wine, aged in rye barrels

One aspect of craft beer culture that has always bored me is the fetishization of high-alcohol and extreme beers. There’s a contingent of boozy chuckleheads that will unfailingly rave about any beer as long as it’s strong enough or packed with enough vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, without really considering its drinkability or balance.

The real beauty in big beers like barley wines, if you ask me, is when a brewer can tame all the forceful elements that go into them and the result is something kind of subtle — something worthy of contemplation and repeat enjoyment. A.E. Cross Barley Wine from Last Best Brewing in Calgary is such a beer.

Last Best intended the beer as a tribute to Cross, who was the founder of Calgary Brewing and Malting, as well as one of the Big Four who started the Calgary Stampede in 1912.

The brewery released two iterations of the beer at the end of 2016, both made with locally-sourced barley, wheat and rye. There was an unoaked version and a batch aged in rye whisky barrels.

I opened a bottle of the barrel-aged version and I will say without hesitation that Last Best has produced a fine tribute to the beer’s namesake.

The beer, brewed to 11.8 per cent AVB, poured a slightly hazy ruby brown with a compact off-white head. The head dissipated quickly, but left behind a long-lasting halo around the edges of the glass. A sugary sweet aroma pulled me in, followed by a brief flare of alcohol, spicy rye and a pleasant bit of tobacco.

On the palate, the alcohol came sharply at first, making me wonder if maybe this beer was still a bit on the young side. But I didn’t think that for long at all, because it subsided into a nicely complex mix of toffee, raisins, a hint of rye spiciness and some sticky sweetness in the linger — but not treacly sweet.

The aroma got boozier as the beer warmed up, but the flavour profile went the other way, acquiring more subtlety: some tobacco and a nice warming sensation going down. I’d say most of the barrel qualities in this beer come from the traces of rye left in them, as opposed to any woody traits that were discernible to me.

Overall, this beer has turned out mellow and smooth, except for the boozy flash I mentioned earlier. It’s possible you could age it longer and it might get even better, but it’s really enjoyable right now. If you open a bottle, you won’t be disappointed.

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 site 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.

Locked in the Cellar: Aventinus side-by-side

A lot of beer lovers end up with large collections of aged bottles saved for special occasions that never seem quite special enough to justify popping them open.

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping most people housebound with a bunch of spare time and nowhere to drive, I would argue that metaphorical rainy day is upon us — though not in the way any of us wanted or imagined. And so, I’ll be cracking open some old bottles and reviewing them in a regular feature I’ve named Locked in the Cellar.

Before we get on with the fatalistic fun, a brief public service announcement: Breweries and liquor stores across Alberta are finding all kinds of ways to keep beer flowing to customers via delivery and pick-up options. My cellar adventure is motivated by boredom and the desire to entertain and connect with fellow beer lovers while we’re all cooped up — not because of any scarcity. If you can, please keep supporting our local breweries and small businesses through the coming days (and potentially months) ahead.

Back to our regularly scheduled program: Last year, I wrote two columns for Avenue Edmonton (here and here) as a sort of “introduction to cellaring” for readers. As I said then, one of the things that makes cellaring so interesting is that unlike wine, aging certain beer styles doesn’t automatically improve them so much as it changes them. Aging a bottle instead of drinking it right away is more a matter of preference, rather than a recommended course of action.

I have plenty of vintage beers in my collection, but I thought it would be fun to begin the series with a head-to-head comparison between fresh and cellared bottles of a beer that’s in regular production to see how aging changes it.

At 8.5 per cent ABV, Aventinus weizenbock is suitable for aging. I pulled a bottle packaged in 2015 from my cellar for comparing with a fresh one.

The fresh bottle

A fresh Aventinus will have a monsterous head if poured too aggressively, so I took my time. Even with the slow pour, a tall beige head with tightly-packed bubbles rose to the top of my weizen glass and used up all the extra room devoted to that purpose.

I swirled the bottle halfway through pouring to distribute the yeast, resulting in a cloudy mahogany beer filling the glass. The aroma was a mix of the expected banana-clove qualities present in wheat beers, along with gingerbread and stone fruit.

Spicy cloves were the first thing to hit my palate, followed by a nice bready flavour from the wheat malt. I perceived gingerbread on my nose, but the sweetness on my palate seemed more like caramel. The fruity esters were more complex than bananas and stone fruits — more like a fruitcake with dark layers containing dried fruits and cherries. The head had nice staying power that lent a creaminess and full body to every sip. There was a definite boozy heat going down, but it was a pleasant warming sensation.

The 2015 bottle

According to the date code on the label, this beer was bottled on July 31, 2015.

I poured the bottle slowly, for reasons explained above. Most of the yeast had accumulated into a sediment on the bottom of the bottle and it stayed there, even though I gave it a swirl. The result was a thin, one-finger head sitting atop a beer that was dark, but clear: mahogany with ruby highlights that were visible when I held it up to the light.

Oxygen gets into older bottles over time, and the resulting oxidation tends to produce sherry-like flavours and aromas. That was the dominant aroma, along with raisin bread and a hint of molasses. Sherry and raisin bread made the biggest impression flavour-wise, but I also felt like the dark malts had become more prominent that turned the breadiness of a fresh Aventinus into something toastier. There was a slightly sharp alcoholic burn, as opposed to the warmth of the fresh bottle — which surprised me a bit. The raisin flavour turned more straight-up grapey in the finish. The carbonation was quite a bit lower than the fresh bottle and the body was noticeably thinner.

My preference

To me, Aventinus is a good example of a beer that changes with age but doesn’t get definitively better.

There are some desirable qualities in an aged Aventinus, particularly the sherry traits — but to me, the fresh bottle possessed the qualities that make Aventinus, well, Aventinus.

Aventinus is a big, bold beer. A fresh bottle has a large, dense head that’s visually attractive and contributes to a rich, full-bodied mouthfeel. The banana and clove aromas are strong and pull you in. The elements play back and forth on the palate, along with raisins and dark fruit.

The aged Aventinus is pleasant, but I’d say it’s more subtle and not as complex. I have a few two-year-old bottles in my cellar, and I don’t think I’ll wait until they’re five before drinking them.