If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time. — Willie Nelson
I did my first-ever vertical beer tasting at the Charleston Beer Exchange with Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine in January 2009. After a beer dinner at Ted’s Butcherblock, we were invited back to CBX to partake in some aged beery goodness.
It was one of those seminal moments in my beer education when a layer of scales fell off my eyes. I had never thought about “cellaring” beer and the positive effects of age on higher ABV beers. And as another birthday approaches for me, it’s given me a positive perspective about age on my own body.
Since, I’ve started my own small beer cellar. I’ve put a few beers down for some time, and this year I’ve felt it’s time to crack a few open. A couple of our good friends, Andy and Lori, are huge fans of Belgian beer, so I brought my stash up to Asheville to share a Belgian-inspired beer dinner and tasting.
The three test subjects: Unibroue Maudite, Unibroue Trois Pistoles and Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue Cap). I recently bought a bottle of each so that we might compare my cellared with newer versions. Like an energetic cougar, age did not disappoint.
Unibroue Maudite: April 2008 (4 years, 7 months) vs. July 2011 (1 year, 4 months)
The first beer in the array was the Maudite, a Belgian amber strong ale by birth. It was the lightest beer in the flight at 8.0% ABV.
The 2011 tasted of fresh fruit: apples and pears. It also had a pronounced clovey, spicy character. Though over a year old, it still tasted fresh.
The 2009 was a different beast. As can happen with aged bottles, this one lost most of its carbonation, so I’m not sure this qualifies as a valid scientific experiment. It was apparent that after two additional years in the bottle, it lost the fresh fruit flavors in favor of more of a dried fruit character.
The spiciness wasn’t there as it was in the 2011. It was also thinner in body, though I attribute that to the loss of carbonation.
Overall, I favored the 2011. It would have been interesting to try the 2009 from a bottle that kept it’s carbonation, as I felt the 2011 had more life and complexity. The fresh fruit flavors of the newer beer jumped off the palate, while I felt the aged version was listless due to the lack of carbonation.
Unibroue Trois Pistoles: November 2011 (1 year) vs. February 2009 (3 years, 9 months)
Next up was the Trois Pistoles. For those that don’t speak French, it doesn’t mean “three pistols,” but rather “three coins.” Not as dramatic in my opinion, but you can read about the legend and judge for yourself.
The 2011 version tasted of bananas foster. Burnt sugar, bananas and creme. A remarkable beer.
The 2009 Trois Pistoles aged similar to the Maudite in the dried fruit character, though it held up much better. It had a character of dried prunes and apricots.
In this case, I think each was a great beer, though again, I preferred the younger. I think the 2011 had a fresher, more interesting character.
Chimay Grande Reserve: February 2011 (1 year, 9 months) vs. February 2008 (4 years, 9 months)
The last beer we got to was the Chimay Grande Reserve. (We also had a couple bottles of Unibroue Terrible, but the ABVs caught up with us.) Often overlooked because it has become the ubiquitous Belgian Strong Ale in the US, it is still one of the best.
We started with the 2011, which had a pronounced caramel malt flavor with a twist of burnt candy sugar. I didn’t get the same fruity phenols from the Chimay that I got from the Unibroue. The 2011 Chimay was more malt-centric.
The 2008 was like drinking a cross between bourbon and port wine. It had a leathery flavor and a mellow creme-like body. The 2008 was boozy, smooth and rich.
This was the only one of the three we tasted where I liked the aged version considerably more than the newer. Though both vintages were great, the 2008 was more complex and enjoyable than the 2011.
This mini-vertical made for a great evening, and I’d recommend to anyone with a little extra shelf space in a cool, dark place to set aside a few bottles and forget about them. It’s amazing what a few years will do to make a great beer… greater.