cellaring

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.

Olde Deuteronomy has aged gracefully

For all the emphasis I put on maintaining my independence from the beer industry, there’s no denying that being someone who writes about it comes with access and privileges.

I’ve been honoured to be a part of the judging at the Alberta Beer Awards for the past two years, by dint of having a modest media profile and a decent amount of beer knowledge built up over the past 15 or so years.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that my resumé puts me at the lower end of expertise in a judging room filled with highly-ranked BJCP judges and industry veterans.

This year, a select panel that included a number of BJCP judges from across the country picked the 2018 edition of Alley Kat Brewing’s Olde Deuteronomy barley wine as Best of Show.

Olde Deut is a longtime favourite of many Alberta beer lovers and the Best of Show title is just another accolade in a long list for Alley Kat, whose strong showing at the 2019 Alberta Beer Awards earned it Brewery of the Year honours.

The recent achievements are an affirmation that Alley Kat, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has kept up with the times and continues to make interesting beers to a high standard.

Olde Deuteronomy’s triumph at the 2020 beer awards is also a testament to the legacy that Alley Kat’s founders, Neil and Lavonne Herbst, have left for the brewery’s new owners, St. Albert businessmen Zane Christensen and Cameron French, who bought the company in February 2020.

So, we have good reason to believe that 2018 was a good year for Olde Deuteronomy. If you’ve ever wondered how some of the dusty old bottles in your cellar are doing, I may be able to help you out.

About a year ago, I had the distinct privilege of being invited to Alley Kat by Neil to do a vertical tasting of nearly every vintage of Olde Deuteronomy going back to 1995 — 13 of them — with him and some of the staff.

(I realize I’ve backed into this seriously cool story like a self-indulgent food blogger writing a 500-word essay about eating their grandma’s grilled cheese sandwiches growing up before disclosing their secret method for making the perfect toastie. I won’t keep you in suspense much longer.)

I took notes that day and I have specific observations below for each year, but the TL;DR version is this: with only one or two exceptions, every vintage is holding up nicely — including the oldest bottles. A couple are excellent.

Before I get on with it, some housekeeping about how the tasting went:

  • Yeah, it was a lot of barley wine, but this wasn’t the proverbial piss-up at a brewery: each bottle was poured into small sample cups and tasted by a group that fluctuated between four or five people, depending on who was coming and going. We took our time, discussed each vintage and had some responsible fun. Nobody drove.
  • I discovered shortly after publishing this piece, thanks to comments from friends, that we were missing bottles from 2009 and 2011.
  • Neil said he stored all the bottles conventionally, in his basement, but they were kept at a pretty constant temperature: about 15C.
  • When we tasted the 2018 vintage last year, the consensus was that it needed to age a little longer. That’s clearly not representative of the beer named Best of Show in February by judges at the Alberta Beer Awards, so my tasting notes for the 2018 vintage are based on a bottle I opened this week.

And now, here’s Olde Deuteronomy year by year:

1995 vintage: Poured virtually flat with no head. Not much visual appeal, but the aroma was an inviting combination of caramelized sugar and sherry-like qualities. The vinous sherry traits showed through in the taste, along with a nice hint of tobacco. “It’s hanging in there,” said Neil.

1996 vintage: Poured with no head, and the body was visibly thinner than a young barley wine. The aroma had vinous qualities, but the flavour was on the spicier side, with hints of clove.

“The ’95 and the ’96 definitely blew me away,” Neil said afterward. (I concur!)

2000-01 “Millennium” vintage: The aroma dropped off quite a bit from the 1996 vintage, but there was nice toffee and caramel present. The flavour was predominantly caramel and burnt sugar but the finish was dry — not a lot of residual sweetness.

2003 vintage: Raisins, spices and fusel alcohol in the aroma. Raisiny flavour, but the finish was a touch solvent-like and distinctly boozy.

2005 vintage: Slight carbonation in the pour, with raisins and sugary plums on the nose. The flavour followed the aroma. The carbonation was noticeable for such an old bottle and played a bit on the palate, but not in a distracting way.

2006 vintage: Poured noticeably darker than the 2005 with a bit of visible carbonation around the edges. The flavour was a bit sour and there was a bit of the wet paper quality that’s a telltale sign of oxidation. “Bad bottling year,” said Neil.

2007 vintage: The aroma checked out — sugary and vinous sherry notes — but it seemed to be suffering from an issue. There was a lingering sourness and a slight pucker in the aftertaste. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was definitely not to style.

When we talked about it afterward, Neil said that Alley Kat’s original bottling line was at the end of its useful life around this time. Neil suspects the 2006 and 2007 vintages were well-made, but an issue that came later — too much oxygen getting into the bottles during filling — likely affected their aging.

2008 vintage: Vinous, sherry-like aroma. The flavour was earthier and spicier than the nose let on. It finished smooth with next to no alcoholic heat going down. With a new bottling line in the brewery, Olde Deut got back on track in 2008.

2010 vintage: Poured with a thin tan head and aroma of caramelized sugar. The flavour closely matched the aroma: a sugary sweet finish with some lingering heat.

2015 vintage: Fruity esters and raisins in the aroma. The alcohol delivered some noticeable heat going down, but it wasn’t overbearing.

2016 vintage: Poured with strong carbonation and a grainy aroma. The hops had some mildly citric characteristics and the finish was lightly spicy with some cloves. “There’s a little bit of everything going on,” said brewer Chase Gordon.

2017 vintage: Earthy hop aroma, more earthy hops on the palate, along with some caramel malt. I said that it was like a high-alcohol ESB to me. “The hops are surprisingly earthy,” Chase said.

2018 vintage (tasted solo in April 2020): No “pop” when the cap came off and it poured with low carbonation. A small ring of foam formed around the edges and quickly dissipated. Aroma was caramelized sugar, rum, fruitcake and some grapey vinous notes. There was a bit of tobacco as it warmed.

For a barley wine that’s still on the young side, it was smooth and started sweet on the palate. There were nice raisin and plum flavours, accompanied by some earthy hops, before some boozy heat flared up mid-palate. However, it subsided in the finish, leaving some vinous traits in the linger.

There’s already a nice level of complexity and mellowness for a beer that came out at the end of 2018. It’s definitely an enjoyable sipper now — but considering how well nearly every vintage is holding up, you can safely age this one, too.

Alley Kat is rightfully remembered as one of the pioneers of craft beer in Alberta. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with that characterization, but memory is malleable: Is it possible nostalgia and the shared experience of discovering craft beer via Alley Kat has burnished that reputation?

I suppose it’s possible, but tasting just about every vintage of Olde Deuteronomy dating back to Alley Kat’s beginnings goes beyond relying on fond memories. It provides pretty persuasive evidence that Alley Kat was doing good things from the start.

Neil and Lavonne Herbst can be proud of everything they built at Alley Kat over the years. Congratulations to them for their most recent honour at the Alberta Beer Awards, and for 25 great years.

And finally, a personal thanks to Neil for inviting me to take part in such a cool experience. It truly was a privilege.

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.

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.