MOVIES & BOOZE: A Christmas taste test

Dean McGuinness does some vertical tasting of La Trappe Quadrupel

VERTICAL TASTING – LA TRAPPE QUADRUPEL

Quite a number of years ago a friend of mine, who imports wines, was celebrating his first container of high quality Australian wines to come into Ireland under bond.  He selected a bottle of one of the best wines on the container, but didn’t give it to me immediately.  “How old are you?” he asked.  At that time, I was 26, so I told him this.  He wrote – “To Dean, Happy 40th Birthday!” on the bottle and gave it to me.

That particular bottle of wine survived until I was 37, but the temptation was too great, and it was cracked open three years early.  It was a great present not only because it was a delicious bottle of wine, but I think I can safely say that of the many bottles of wine that have been given to me as gifts, that this particular bottle stands out in my memory the most because of the manner in which it was gifted.  Ten years after I drank the bottle of wine, and twenty years after I received the gift, I still remember it, and I still tell the story.

The same idea can be applied to beer – vintaging beer.

In the past at Christmas time we have reviewed gift packs of beer, but today we are reviewing a slightly different gifting idea.  The beer(s) that we are reviewing today are just one beer, but three versions of it – La Trappe Quadrupel.  The first bottle is a relatively fresh bottle brewed within the last year.  Our second and third bottles are two bottles that have been vintaged – one bottle that is five years old, and the second that is eight to nine years old.  As an interesting note, while I have tasted another version of the first bottle in preparation for the show, the second and third bottles will be opened live on air, and it will be my first time tasting them (because I only have one bottle of each of these particular vintages in my cellar!)

We will also go through the beer styles that are best for vintaging, and some notes for storing beer when it is being vintaged.

Vintaging Beer –

Most beers are best served as fresh as possible.  In some cases, beer needs to be aged for a period of time before serving.  Some beers can be drunk fresh from the brewery, or can be vintaged for many years before drinking.  We are going to focus on vintaging beers today, but first we will look at beers that are best not vintaged, and should be drunk fresh.

As a general rule of thumb, ‘normal’ strength beers are best drunk as fresh as possible (with a small number of exceptions).  Mainstream beers are usually filtered, and are often pasteurised – they start to deteriorate from their peak state of quality the second after they are packaged and, while they usually get a 12 month best before date, they are usually best drunk while they are fresh.

Beers that rely heavily on hop character are generally best drunk fresh.  Hop aromas are volatile, and they tend to dissipate from the flavour of a beer over time.  If one wants to experience the best of this hop flavour, it is best to drink the beer as fresh as possible.  Therefore, IPA’s, as a rule of thumb, should be drunk as fresh as possible.  In fact, a recent evolution of IPA – the New England IPA, that relies heavily on hop flavour, and can have so much hop character in the beer that the hops give it a cloudy appearance – are noted for not travelling well (as would be the case if they are exported to far away markets), as they lose what makes them special in the time that it takes for them to complete a long journey.

Coming to beers that are best for vintaging, there are three key qualities of beer that help make them suitable for vintaging.  Dark beers tend to age better than pale coloured beers.  Strong beers tend to age better than lower strength beers (the extra alcohol content gives the beer extra protection from microbes that might lead to beer spoilage over time).  In fact, it is proposed that a beer that is not smoked or a sour should only be vintaged if it is above 8% a.b.v.  Finally, authentic sour beers (beers such as Lambics and Flanders Red Ales) have often already been aged for one to three years before they have been packaged – such sours lend themselves well to vintaging.

Using these guidelines, vintaging beers can be a matter of degree.  We will outline below some beer styles that tend to vintage well in most all cases, but this is not to say that vintaging beers is limited to these styles.  I recently spoke with Alain de Laet – the owner of the DeHuyghe Brewery, the brewery that brews Delirium Tremens.  In his opinion, Delirium Tremens is best drunk at between three months old and eighteen months old.  They give longer than this as the best before date because the beer is still in excellent condition up to three or four years.  However, with his knowledge of this particular beer (he drinks many bottles of it!!) he has noted the subtle variations in his beer over time and come to this conclusion.

 

Styles that are most reliable for vintaging are as follows –

  • Imperial Russian Stouts
  • Belgian Quadrupels and Belgian Dark Ales
  • Barleywines – with English Barleywines tending to fare better than American Barleywines, only because the latter sometimes relies on American hop character for quality (this hop character can dissipate over time leading to a different taste, but maybe still an excellent tasting beer)
  • Flanders Red Ales and Flanders Oude Bruin
  • Oude Gueuze Lambic

In most all instances, properly stored, and trusting that the particular bottle of beer selected has been brewed to a high standard of quality, the above styles will reward the patience of anybody who chooses to vintage some bottles of these beers.

In terms of how to cellar, the good news is that cellaring beers is a bit easier than cellaring wines –

  • The temperature of the cellar will ideally be around 13˚ Increasing the temperature by 10˚C can have the effect of accelerating reactions that are happening in the beer at between five and ten times (this is a very loose rule, but the key point is that beers age faster when warmer).
  • Protecting the beer from light is always a good idea, as light wavelengths can react with hop components to generate unpleasant flavours. Brown bottles protect beer from light almost completely (98% protection) – so green or clear bottles are of more concern.  Keeping a bottle in a box is a simple solution.
  • The type of closure can be a matter to consider. If the bottle has a cork closure, ideally the cellar should have humidity above or around 55% so that the cork doesn’t dry out, but again this is less of a concern than with wine.  Some people wrap their cork in tin foil or plastic to maintain the moisture of the cork.  Some others get wax online and coat the bottle top in wax, but in most all instances, this is not a necessary thing to do.
  • Storing on side or upright is a further matter for debate. Suffice it to say that either option can work and both options have their positives and negatives.
  • Finally, larger bottles of beer vintage better than smaller bottles.

 

La Trappe Quadrupel –

Beer Style                            -  Belgian Trappiste Quadrupel

Alcohol by Volume          -  10.0% a.b.v.

Brewed by                          -  Brewery de Koningshoeven

Brewed in                            -  Koningshoeven, Netherlands

The first thing to note about La Trappe Quadrupel is its colour.  It is closer in colour to a barleywine.  Other Trappiste Quadrupels (such as Chimay Blue / Chimay Grande Reserve) are notably darker in colour.  The flavours that come through from the malt and from the ale fermentation are driven by this, but also develop into some interesting fruit and phenolic flavours.

The bottle of La Trappe tasted for these notes had a best before date of  June 2021, making it about six months to a year old.  This beer has a delicious abundance of flavours – one layered on the next.  Fruit flavours – banana, black cherries, peach, apricot, apple are in evidence on a base of malt flavour that comes through as caramel and almond and develops into burnt, caramelized sugars and brown sugar.  These malt flavours develop further on subsequent tastings – the almond developing further into marzipan, and the depth of mid-colour malt sweetness evolving on the palate.  Spice provides balance – white pepper that develops into black pepper and combines with a warming phenolic character that is further lifted by the carbonation of the beer.  Vinous alcohol is in evidence – particularly when the beer is cold – and the heat of this alcohol provides a counterpoint to the spice heat of the beer.  This beer finishes with hop bitterness that develops into the finish.  The finish is relatively dry, but some of the dark fruit flavour lingers into the finish giving a memory of dark fruit sweetness

Vintaging La Trappe Quadrupel –

The actual results of the vintaging can vary bottle by bottle and by the degree of aging of the bottle.  However, the following are some developments that we will be looking for as we taste the beer –

  • Bitterness would be expected to reduce over time, with the effect of providing less balance to the sweetness of the beer and letting this sweetness come through more in the beer;
  • Alcohol character should smooth with age, and can develop into sherry, Madeira and other flavours;
  • The malt character is likely to be more pronounced as the balancing bitterness reduces over time;
  • Phenolic character (spice and warming phenols) can develop into different flavours over time – leather, vanilla and tobacco;
  • Esters (fruit flavours) can morph and evolve over time into other fruit flavours – stone and pomme fruit flavours (apple, peach, apricot etc.) can develop into dried fruit flavours (raisins, currants etc.);
  • Proteins in the beer are likely to break down over time, causing the body of the beer to become thinner. However, the increased relative sweetness would provide a balance to this and might neutralise the effect of the lighter body;
  • Other flavours from oxidation can emerge in the beer.

The actual result of vintaging is the whole reason for completing the exercise – each bottle is a treat, and the surprise of the actual results of the vintaging is part of the treat.