MOVIES & BOOZE: Fancy a beer this weekend?

Dean McGuinness, the Beer Messiah, reviews some fancy Chimay Blue beers

Now that we are into December, I don’t feel that guilty in announcing that Christmas is coming.  So to mark the occasion, we will be opening about €70+ worth of beer on the show today – and in total, that will be three bottles of beer!  We have a comparison tasting of Chimay Blue – original (unoaked) Chimay Blue first compared with Chimay Blue that has been aged in Chestnut, Oak and Cognac barrels.  Our second tasting will be to compare our first two beers with Chimay Blue aged in French Oak, American Oak and Rum barrels.  With the cold weather, it is only appropriate that we look for a little extra warmth – while regular (unoaked) Chimay Blue is 9% a.b.v., the oaked versions have a touch of the ‘Angel’s Share’, and come in at 10.5% for both – Happy Days!!

Comparison Tastings –

Most people are familiar with the idea of Beer and Food matching – we have done some examples of this in the past on the show.  With beer and food matching, we are pairing a beer with a particular dish.  In some cases the pairings involve complementary (similar) flavours enhancing eachother.  Other instances involve contrasting flavours that balance and extend the flavour experiences.  In some rare cases, we can have  a ‘combination’ effect – where the flavours from the beer and the flavours from the food combine to give a flavour not evident in either beer or food individually.

Comparison tastings are similar, but kind of work in reverse.  Instead of looking to see how two different things interact and work together, with a comparison tasting, we are looking at how two (or more) beers are different from eachother.  These beers will usually have something in common, but with some dimension or characteristic of difference – and what we are looking for is how that factor causes flavour differences in the beer.

There are a number of different examples of comparison tastings –

  • Vertical Tastings – this is where beers of different ages are tasted to see how the aging of the beer has affected flavours.  Breweries will sometimes do this with certain beers to investigate whether aging has caused quality deterioration.  However, with Vintage Beer tastings, beers of different age (sometimes aged by up to 10, 20 or 30 years) compare with eachother.  These Vintage Beer tastings tend to work best with certain beer styles – specifically Barley Wines, Belgian Quadrupels, Lambics, Flanders Red and Imperial Russian Stouts/Porters.
  • Style Tastings – this involves tasting a range of beers that belong in the same style family, and comparing the differences between these beers knowing that they have a foundation base of commonality. For example, one might taste a range of single hopped IPA’s to see the differences that come through as a result of different hops.
  • Barrel Aged Tastings – this is what we are doing to-day. Different barrels can impart different flavours into beer.  Tasting the same beer aged in different barrels gives one an idea of the impact of that barrel on the beer’s flavour.

When doing a comparison tasting, an interesting phenomenon comes about in the tasting process.  Our brains are calibrated to help us use taste to make decisions.  When we taste something, our brains might be presented with hundreds of different flavours simultaneously – sorting through all of these flavours without some kind of filter is difficult.  Our brain’s flavour processing helps us sort through these flavours.

To understand this a bit better, think of walking into a room with two hundred people in it.  You may have seen a number of the people in the room before, and you might have never seen others in the room.  Maybe you are looking for a particular person, or you know that a friend is going to be in the room.  Your brain lets you scan through the crowd, and ‘ignore’ the people that are not relevant to you.  Somehow, your friend stands out from the crowd because your brain highlights this person when your eyes fall on them.

When it comes to tasting, our brains will often ‘see’ certain flavours first – often flavours that we particularly like, or sometimes flavours that raise a warning flag for us.  As we ‘adapt’ to these flavours, we can find that we notice a secondary flavour on our second tasting of the beer.  As we return to the beer and taste again and again, more and more flavours come through on the beer.  What is actually happening here is that our brain is adapting to different flavours – when we identify a flavour on the first tasting, our brain recognises it and processes it.  On the second tasting, our brain allows us to attach less importance to this first flavour, and lets us ‘look behind’ that flavour to see what other flavours might be there.  In this way, tasting a complex beer can be a range of flavour experiences from the first sip to the last.

When we have a ‘base’ beer, this further helps us by allowing us to adapt to the flavours in this base beer.  When we taste the unoaked Chimay Blue, this gives us an understanding of the flavours that are common across all three beers.  Having tasted the unoaked, it becomes easier to see the differences that the oak aging has on the beer – we can put the ‘standard’ flavours to one side in our brains, and focus on the differences that have come from the rum, cognac, oak or other casks.

Chimay Blue (Unoaked) –

Beer Style                           -  Trappiste Belgian Quadrupel

Alcohol by Volume          -  9.0% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Chimay Brewery

Brewed in                           -  Abbaye de Scourmont, Chimay, Belgium.

Cask Aging                          -  Not Cask Aged

Somewhat appropriately, Chimay Blue (or Chimay Grande Reserve if it is packaged in a large format bottle such as a 750ml or a Magnum (1.5 ltr) or Jerenbaum (3 ltr) bottle was originally brewed as a Christmas seasonal beer.  Over time, it became the most popular of the three Chimay ‘cornerstone’ beers (Red, White and Blue), and it became a year-round beer.  However, the flavours in Chimay Blue still remind me of Christmas – most likely because Chimay Blue has an array of Christmas pudding and Christmas cake flavours in it (as well as many other wonderful flavours).

Chimay Blue combines an array of different flavours – brown sugar, raisins, currants, black cherry, plums, figs and dates all come through.  These fruit flavours come through as macerated fruit – reminiscent of fruit soaked in alcohol that has absorbed this alcohol and, in turn, uses the alcohol to ‘carry’ the flavour of the fruit as the beer is drunk.  Balancing the malt and fruit flavours is a certain degree of bitterness (which is not that perceptible as a distinct flavour – rather present as a balancing factor) and a significant amount of Belgian spice.  Pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and, when the beer is a touch colder, a touch of chilli spice all come through to balance the fruit and malt sweetness.  As one drinks further sips of Chimay Blue, other flavours of marzipan/almond and vanilla develop on the palate.

Chimay Blue (Oaked – 2016 vintage) –

Beer Style                           -  Trappiste Belgian Quadrupel

Alcohol by Volume          -  10.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Chimay Brewery

Brewed in                           -  Abbaye de Scourmont, Chimay, Belgium.

Cask Aging                          -  Blend of Chestnut, Oak and Cognac Barrel Aged Beer

For our comparison tasting, we will focus on the differences between the beers rather than repeating the flavours that are present in all three beers.  However, with these differences two factors come into play – differences resulting from different types of cask aging firstly, but also differences resulting from the interactions of flavours from cask aging in the beer and the original flavours in the beer.  Both are interesting!

As one might expect, the Chestnut, Oak and Cognac Aged Chimay Blue has distinct notes of cognac (fortified, aged wine) on the nose that comes through on the palate as well.  A distinct woodiness comes through on initial tastings, and this develops and provides an alternative counterbalancing factor in the flavour of the beer.  Creamy vanilla is more in evidence in the finish of the beer, and the cognac seems to develop the sweetness of the beer – making it stand out a little more.  Liquorice emerges in later sips, and an interesting development on the spice flavour takes place – mint/menthol flavour comes through in the beer.  As the beer warms a little, the sweetness opens up further and the fruit from both the beer and the cognac rounds out and develops.

Chimay Blue (Oaked – 2017 vintage) –

Beer Style                           -  Trappiste Belgian Quadrupel

Alcohol by Volume          -  10.5% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Chimay Brewery

Brewed in                           -  Abbaye de Scourmont, Chimay, Belgium.

Cask Aging                          -  Blend of French Oak, American Oak and Rum Barrel Aged Beer

The French Oak, American Oak and Rum Barrel Aged version of Chimay Blue introduces a new dimension of flavour to the beer.  Dark rum and molasses are a cornerstone feature of the beer, but the oak also contributes a distinct oak spice and vanilla counterpoint to the beer.  The rum character in the beer develops the malty flavours, and results in a new type of sweetness coming through in the beer.  Chewy marshmallow sweetness starts to develop in the beer as the dark malt flavours are enhanced and accentuated in the beer.  The dark fruit quadruple flavours are still in evidence, but the brown sugar is complemented and joined by the molasses dark sugars to shift the balance of flavour in the beer in this direction.  As a slightly younger beer, the individual flavours stand out a touch more – as this beer ages, the borders between individual flavours are likely to become less distinct as flavours merge and blend into eachother to give complex, combined flavour characteristics.

As we were doing our tasting of these beers, everybody felt that we should have arranged a food pairing of an array of different cheeses, charcuterie and fruits.  The possibilities for beer and food pairings with these beers are endless, and having different versions of the same beers would result in most interesting variations on individual pairings – a job for tomorrow morning at 10am, maybe!! J