An Article by Noah Forrest
Montreal winter is here, and it’s a cruel bastard. It hasn’t been around long, so I’ve yet to become a whiny, irritable mess. But don’t worry, I’ll get there. Negative 30 degree temperatures and a few giant snow storms can quickly turn anyone into a weather loathing lunatic. That being said, one of the things that gets me through this jerk of a season is the slew of big and robust beers that come out this time of year. They warm your body as they go down, providing a richness that you might not want in the warmer months of the year. Each sip is a bold and nourishing mouth hug that reminds you of at least one thing that’s nice about winter. These beers come in many shapes and sizes, but today, I’m drinking imperial stouts and Barleywines; and specifically, those made by Microbrasserie Le Castor, a brilliant brewery from Rigaud, Quebec (just west of Montreal).
In late 2013, Le Castor released “Catherine,” a Rye whiskey barrel aged Russian imperial stout, alongside “Vin No. 1,” a rum barrel aged Barleywine. I’ve held onto them for two years, as they slept quietly in my cellar. Just before the holidays, for the first time in two years, Catherine reemerged in stores, this time being aged in Rum barrels, as opposed to the Rye Whiskey barrels that the 2013 version was aged in. A new “American” Barleywine aged in Rum barrels followed shortly after. Luckily, I got my hands on both, and I’d like to talk about how the 2013s have aged, and how they compare to the newer variants.
However, before getting into the tasting notes, I wanted to check in with Daniel Addey Jibb (the brewer for Le Castor) to get more information about these sexy specimens.
Dan, first off, thanks for bringing Catherine back. Is this year’s version the same recipe as the previous batch? If so, did you alter it in order to better match Rum barrels, as apposed to Rye whiskey barrels?
“It’s actually been a rough go with Catherine since the very first batch in 2013. It seems to be an unlucky beer for us on the production side. Each year something goes wrong: 2013 had heavy losses (30%), 2014 was scrapped (damn cognac barrels!), and 2015 had big losses too, around 25% (damn rum barrels!). But that’s barrel aging for you – there are risks. Next year, we will hopefully get it right. To answer your question, the 2015 version is quite similar in terms of grain bill, yeast and hopping levels to the 2013. We didn’t really alter it to suit one spirit barrel over another – we prefer to leave things constant and let the barrel-aging itself change the beer. Same approach that we had for the Wee Heavy Rhum – same base beer, different barrel. It’s more fun to have only one variable that changes, then you can really focus in on what attributes the barrel brings to the overall flavour/aroma profile. I can tell you that we are not in a hurry to use rum barrels again though – just too many issues with them.”
Was the choice to change Catherine’s barrel type a matter of preference and experimentation, or was it simply utilitarian because it’s what was available at the time? Do you feel that the beer is substantially different as a result of this switch?
“We’d like to say it was clever & careful planning, but no, it wasn’t. Another local brewery had purchased a bunch of rum barrels, and was willing to sell us 50 of them, so it was a matter of convenience mostly – and the fact that we like rum, and thought it would be good to try out on some big beers we had already aged in other spirit barrels. The used spirit barrel market is a lot tougher than it was 3 and a half years ago when we started. The prices are way up, and availability is down due to other microbreweries, micro-distilleries, and macro-distilleries all needing the same barrels. We absolutely love rye barrels, but they are so hard to source now. Bourbon are more scarce & expensive too. This is why some breweries are choosing to go further afield to buy directly from distilleries, which also means purchasing larger volumes of barrels at a time.
As for the end result, we would let you – the consumer – decide on what the differences are, and if it’s better or worse in rum barrels. It’s been a while since I’ve had a 2013 Catherine, and even if you had one now, it will have lost some of its spirit character and evolved through oxidation, so it’s hard to compare the two. Some traits that we like, like black liquorice, dark chocolate, vanilla & oak have carried over from one version to the next. In general though, the rum does seem to have a more boozy effect on the beer, whereas rye is more subtle, more complex – perhaps because it’s a grain spirit. Some people really like the punchy rum presence in the beer, some would prefer less of it. It’s something that is hard to control when you are barrel aging the beer entirely in first-use spirit barrels. You could always blend with non-aged beer to reduce barrel character, or blend in 2nd & 3rd use barrels, but you need a rolling inventory of rum barrels to do that – something we don’t have.”
Is the new Barleywine an Americanized (hoppier) adaption of Vin No. 1, or were you going for something completely different with this latest batch? What can we expect in terms of flavour variations between the two?
“The Barleywine Rhum base beer is the same American Barleywine we released last winter – a heavily hopped, non-barrel-aged beer. It is very different from the Vin No. 1, which was a rum barrel aged English Barleywine from 2013. And again – we hadn’t planned to age the American Barleywine in rum barrels, but we had a few barrels leftover after filling most of them with Wee Heavy and Catherine, so we either had to fill them with something, or throw them out (BTW: this is why the volume of beer was so low, and we weren’t able to distribute it properly – we apologize for that!). We had American Barleywine in production at the time, so we filled the extra barrels with it. Not a beer style that we would normally choose to barrel age due to its assertive hoppiness, but the end result was a nice surprise. The hoppiness mellowed out in the barrel. The Barleywine Rhum is more hoppy, and more bitter than the Vin No. 1, and has a neutral yeast character. They are both quite fruity – but one gets it from the hops, and the other gets it primarily from the yeast strain.”
Can we expect any other big and bold beers in 2016?
“Good question… we are discussing this right now. We may actually have to take a break from big barrel-aged beers in the second half of 2016. Even though we are expanding the building & brewhouse, we have little warehouse space, so we are being forced to make some ‘either/or’ type decisions. Our Brett beers take up a lot of space because they need 2 to 3 months of bottle conditioning time, and need to be warm. Our interests are very much pointed in the direction of Bretts and sours right now, and we’d really like to get some wine barrels in to start our sour beer program for real. Due to the lack of space, we will have to take a little break from big, barrel-aged beers. We should have enough Wee Heavy Bourbon in inventory to last til spring though. And we will do our best to have something barrel-aged for next Christmas. Hopefully people will enjoy the beers that we will be making in their place. If we had another 10,000 square feet of space, we could do everything we’d like to do – but we simply don’t have it!”
Well, this has certainly got me even more excited to crack open these bottles. Although it’s unfortunate that we may not see these beers again next year, it excites me even more that Le Castor is working on new brett and sour concoctions for 2016. That being said, this article is about big, robust, high alcohol beers, so lets drink them already! I’m going to start with the fresher version, then move onto the aged bottle in order to see how time changed it.
A couple of quick things to note. Normally when doing verticals (comparing vintages), it’s often recommended to do them side by side; meaning that you drink both at the same time next to each other. That couldn’t happen here, as I can’t afford to get rip roaring hammered while taking care of a 6 month old baby and a three year old. That being said, I also think there is value in having them separately, as when you drink them at the same time, your palate can get confused and flavours in one bottle can throw off flavours in another. For instance, if one is far sweeter, it can make the other seem like there is no sweetness at all, even though you would normally taste it if you weren’t having the first one. Think about when you are drinking a Coke and eating a chocolate bar. The Coke ends up tasting weird. It’s an extreme example, but you get the point. The other thing I wanted to mention is that these are not really proper verticals because the beers are different (different barrels, different styles, etc…), however I still think it will be fun to loosely compare them.
Catherine 2015 (Rum)
Catherine 2015 pours out a thick, beautifully dark colour, with a small beige head that turns into a small ring circling the glass. The nose exudes a plethora of oak barrel aromatics, including a big spicy rum presence, mixed with sweet vanilla. It’s quite fruity as well, with lots of cherries in the mix.
Upon first sip, it’s toasty, and contains a nice espresso-like bitterness in the finish. The rum and barrel are the most predominantly focused flavours, with loads of vanilla and woody complexities, just as the nose foreshadowed. There is a doughy cake batter thing happening, and more cherries come out as it warms. The body is on the lighter side for the style, however, that also increases its drinkability. This is beautifully dry, and seems to result from the lingering finish, which is all about espresso, oak tannins, resinous hops, and a strong boozy spirit-like deliciousness.
When in comes to imperial stouts, I usually lean towards those with big chewy bodies. Catherine is on the lighter spectrum. That being said, with big bodies often comes unwanted sweetness, or simply a richness that doesn’t lend well to having more than a few ounces. Catherine is bone dry, and highly drinkable, which goes a really long way and makes up for the lighter body. I finished this 11% 650ml bottle while watching Star Wars on the couch. Sure, I passed out during the last 10 minutes, but I didn’t feel too full or gross! And hey, I have two young kids, I’m lucky that I even got 5 minutes into the movie.
Catherine 2013 (Rye)
Catherine 2013 pours out pretty thick and oil-like (more so than the 2015), with a small tan, bordering on brown head. The barrel is huge on this, wafting giant woody and vanilla aromatics. The rye whiskey is more prominent than I recall, with less of that toasty coffee stout thing, and more spirit barrel spicy oak and whiskey. There is some slight oxidization, but well within my personal tolerance.
The body is silky and smooth, more so than I recall. The bitterness has faded, leaving a cleaner finish, but not so much so that it has become watery – however, I suspect another year of aging will be too much. I get an ever so slight oxidized soy sauce thing that generally happens with aged stouts, but it’s extremely minimal, and doesn’t take away from anything.
Like the nose, the whiskey is far more predominant than when fresh (from what I can recall, anyways). However, there are also lots of beautiful coffee and dark chocolate complexities that add various layers to this divine beverage. Just like the 2015 rum version, this beer is exceptionally dry, which I appreciate to no end. The spirit based alcohol burn adds a nice bitterness that helps cut the silky body quite well. There is a subtle earthiness as well, and I’m not sure where it originates exactly. That being said, it works with all the other flavours quite well, and helps to make this feel a lot like a cold brewed, whiskey spiked, tall espresso. I love thick, strong coffee and I adore barrel aged imperial stouts.
The oak tannins really create a drying finish that compliments everything wonderfully. The reason that this beer did so well with age could be the opposite to what I would normally think. Since this already has a lighter body than I normally expect from an imperial stout, it’s not surprising that it has a thinner flavour after some time. However, the bitterness from the spirits and the tannins help balance the beer, creating a sharpness that held up as the hops faded, not allowing for the usual aged beer muted flavours to take hold.
Barleywine Rhum 2015
I’m very curious about this beer. When I first had Le Castor’s American Barleywine last winter, I liked it a lot, but found that it was bordering on double IPA territory. I remember thinking to myself, “Drink this fresh, it’s not going to age well.” That being said, what do I know? Also, in my experience, sometimes the oak tannins and the spirits left inside the barrel help reduce those oxidized wet cardboard flavours that can emerge in aged beers that contain lots of American hops that are high alpha acids. So let’s check it out!
It pours out a pretty amber brown colour with a tiny head that dissipates rather quickly. It smells of sweet grapefruit, mixed with caramel, and some slight pine. There are loads of red fruits like strawberries and pomegranate as well. It’s even a bit floral, slightly echoing a bouquet of roses. There are aromas of aged hops, but not that gross oxidized old IPA thing; instead, it’s a rich fruit bomb. I don’t get much barrel or rum at all on the nose.
Wow, this is bitter. Like insane bitter. There are sugars here, but the resinous finish is intense and cuts everything. Just like the nose, there are berries and general fruits, coupled with piney hops and a big caramel base. There is loads of grapefruit here, creating a pithy bitter rind thing that mixes in with the caramel sweetness, helping to cut the slightly cloying body. The alcohols are sharp, and although sometimes this can be a bit off putting, I feel like it helps keep the sugars at bay alongside the hop bitterness. Compared to Catherine, the rum presence is minimal, perhaps adding more fruity layers and some drying oak tannins to the mix.
Overall, this was good, but certainly something you want to share. Although it’s balanced with aggressive hop bitterness and boozy rum burn, it still comes off a bit sweet as it warms and your palate adjusts to the bitterness. This isn’t helped by the extremely low carbonation, which doesn’t clean your palate between sips like it could. These kinks might improve with time though; only one way to find out.
Vin No. 1 – Rhum
Sadly, I never ended up trying Vin No. 1 when fresh. For some reason, the only bottle I had stayed in the cellar this whole time, waiting for the right moment to be opened. Ideally when aging beer, you always want to try a bottle fresh in order to assess its aging potential, and then sit on the second bottle to compare it down the line. I won’t be able to do that here, but I’ll certainly be able to see how good it is now, even without the comparison.
It pours a pretty clear amber orange colour, with a nice frothy little head. It smells of rich cooked caramel, followed by some light oxidized aromas of honey. I’m also getting brown sugar, cherries, peaches, and some cider-like apple aromas which really make this a big fruit bomb, but certainly not in a hoppy way like the American Barleywine. Similarly though, I don’t get a ton of barrel or rum on the nose.
It’s sweet up front, with a lot of caramel and honey. The finish is long, but somewhat dry, cutting the sugars quite well. There is only a slight wateriness from the age, but it actually helps with the viscosity. It’s quite drinkable. Just like the nose, I don’t get a lot of the rum, but the oak tannins help dry things a bit.
There is this great pear and peach thing that goes alongside the cooked caramel and maple syrup sweetness. There are also lots of rum soaked raisins, creating a general plum pudding thing (I love plum pudding). The balance is on point, and the layers of complexities are robust, and although being a bit on the sticky side, it’s still rather drinkable. There is no real detectable ethanol presence, but it is still warming as it goes down. The age has certainly smoothed everything out and integrated all the flavours nicely. The carbonation is perfect, lending a great effervescence to the stickiness while still allowing it to feel silky and creamy.
I’m not going to say that I’m surprised, but I’m certainly very impressed with how well both of these beers aged over two years. Aging beer that long is not uncommon (I have dozens of beers older than that in my cellar), but you just never know, and a lot of the time they might not be bad, but certainly no longer as good as their fresher counterparts. These two beers aged beautifully, so if you still have them, you might consider cracking them open. They are great now, but who knows for how long…
An Article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest