Sunday, 22 September 2013

Just Beer

My name is Matthew Curtis and I have a problem. I regularly buy and horde far more beer than I can physically drink and I am often overtly precious about some of the bottles in my collection. I often question myself, why am I like this? Not just with beer but with several different genres of booze. I often have to have strong words with myself, booze is created to be drank, simple as, there is no need for ceremony or occasion, it's just a drink so why am I so often over protective of my stash? I always like to keep some bottles of Cantillon gueuze in stock, it's one of my favourite beers and it's the perfect aperitif on a Sunday afternoon before a big feed. At upwards of a fiver for a 375 millilitre bottle it's not cheap for a beer but when you think about how it's made, barrel aged in different batches for between one and three years and then skillfully blended and primed for refermentation in the bottle, it's creation is no mean feat. At the end of the day is something that takes so long and such a degree of skill to make still just a beer? Of course this is, that's why I like to crack open one a week, if this was wine it would be three times the price so it's best just enjoy it while you've got it, right?

Firestone Walker Parabola. Just beer?
Recently I've had a few beers that I thought were more than simply just beer, they've transcended their beginnings of hops, malt, water and yeast and metamorphosed into something different, more elegant and more spectacular. At this years European Beer Bloggers Conference I was handed a glass of 10th Anniversary Samuel Adams Utopias. Now Utopias starts life just like many other beers with grain and water and noble hops but instead of an ale yeast a strain normally reserved for Champagne is employed and in order to ramp up the alcohol content to a massive 29% maple syrup is added to the brew. The beer is then separated and aged for varying degrees of time in a variety of bourbon, port, cognac and sherry barrels before being recombined to create the finished article. The syrupy, bronze liquid loams around the glass, notes of sherry and oak leap out and stick to your nostrils. The taste is a surprise to me, I was expecting a car crash of unbalanced flavours but what I get is a little oak, a little honey, ripe figs and a whole heap of well refined port like flavours. Surprisingly the whole thing is underpinned by a slight effervescence which serves as the only reminder that this is or was at some point just beer and it's this that lifts it up to being a brilliant drink. This is not beer any longer though, this is something else, it's not port or sherry because no grapes were involved, it's not eau-de-vie because no fruit was involved and calling it 'fortified beer' doesn't sum up the grandeur that this beverage manages to conjure. Is it worth $250 a bottle though? You could get a stupendous bottle of whisky for the same amount of money and I know which I'd rather have in my drinks cabinet.

Earlier that very weekend I was in The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road and they had tapped one of only two kegs in existence of this years Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Beaded Lady. This year Magic Rock have taken their superb imperial brown stout and aged it in Wild Turkey Barrels for ten months. Wild Turkey has always been a favourite of mine but it's a monster of a bourbon so I feared that the Bearded Lady would have been blasted into oblivion by this powerful beverage. This was not the case though, I may have been three sheets (plus a couple more, perhaps) to the wind when I took a sip but I was overwhelmed by how mellow and how smooth this initially intimidating stout was. I had nothing to fear, the vanilla rich bourbon notes intermingled perfectly with the flavours of rich roasted coffee and molasses from the beer. This vinous beer slid down the throat like liquid velvet, not a note was out of place and every flavour was in perfect harmony, it was quite simply wonderful. It straddled the line between beer and something else entirely, this was special no doubt but was it just beer and should it be treated as something different, more special? Or should I just open another bottle this afternoon just for the hell of it, it's just beer after all...

This August bank holiday weekend I was away with friends and on the last night of our stay I brought out the most prized bottle of beer in my collection, a 2012 Firestone Walker Parabola another mighty whisky barrel aged imperial stout. The fact that I'm even referring to the vintage of this bottle as if it was a wine is surely evidence to suggest that like the Bourbon Barrel Bearded lady this is more than just beer. It cost me fifteen dollars but I imagine if I kept it long enough I could sell it on for much more but that's not why I bought it, the sole purpose of it's existence is to get inside my belly so sod stashing it it away for aeons to come. There were ten of us present that evening, only one other person, my friend Dom was interested in giving it a taste. The others were tucking into a bottle of 2008 Sandeman LBV Port, I was disappointed by this (not by the Port, that's very good), I wanted to see peoples reactions as they tasted what is regarded as one of the best beers in the world. To them though, this was just one of my 'weird beers' and they were probably wishing that I'd just shut up and drink the damn thing. No matter, this meant there would be more of this special brew for my own consumption. Where the Magic Rock slid eleganty around the glass Parabola sat their like a quantum singularity, absorbing any light in its path. I stared into the oubliette and massive notes of booze and charred oak wrapped their tendrils around me. This 'beer' has been in wood for twelve months and boy can you tell with ridiculous amounts of oak in the finish, the bourbon notes are massive and overwhelming at first, it's a challenge to wrap your brain around the sheer ferocity of this beer. However a few sips in a you realise that this is a lion that is willing to be tamed if you have the courage. Despite being from the same genre of beer as the Magic Rock this is an entirely different creature and the fine line between beer and something else becomes even more blurred. 

If I'm drinking beer, do I want to be challenged? Surely that defeats the object of drinking alcohol, it's a relaxant not a stimulant after all. Thinking back to my first taste of Cantillon Gueuze, that was a challenge but now it's an utter joy. Sadly it's unlikely I'll ever get to taste that particular vintage of Parabola again but if I did would it make that moment, that spectacular drunken brawl less special? I've asked myself more questions than I've answered but I think the answer is that it doesn't matter what you decide to call it or what you take from your experience of drinking it, what matters is that whatever's in your glass is always good.

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