An Article by Noah Forrest
For many beer geeks, part of the fun of buying beer is to collect bottles that are “ageable” and holding onto them for extended periods of time. Not only do we do this to see how they change and evolve over the years, but also so that we can compare them to younger vintages. It’s often done by having “vertical” tastings, where we drink two or more vintages right next to each other in order to observe the differences and similarities in real-time. It’s basically the beer equivalent of playing magic cards.
Many breweries also make variations of the same beer (different barrels, hops, yeasts, adjuncts, etc.), so it’s great fun comparing these variants in order to see how the different techniques and ingredients can change the overall flavour profile of the beer.
This post will be the first in a series of articles that I call “Verticals and Variants,” which will concentrate on these two forms of beer comparability.
Vertical tastings are not too common for me anymore. I have two little ones at home, so I don’t get out much. And I certainly can’t drink several high-alcohol beers by myself. However, what I often do is simply have these vintages or variants each night over the course of several days. You certainly don’t get that real-time comparison, but you also don’t get palate fatigue and/or confusion — there are advantages and disadvantages to spacing it out over a short period of time (it’s important to take extensive notes, though).
However! My lovely partner took our kids to Ottawa, so I invited some friends over to do a vertical tasting of epic proportions — one that I’ve been working on for about five years now. Our plan was to drink eleven bottles of 10.2 per cent Barleywine! More specifically, eleven different vintages of both the regular and bourbon barrel-aged versions of Solstice d’hiver from Dieu du Ciel! I managed to collect: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 of the regular edition, and 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 of the bourbon barrel-aged variant.
We had a daunting night ahead of us.
I rounded up T.J., a Beerism contributor, Derek from the blog Malty Tasker, Dan from the pico brewery Une Bière Deux Coups, and Pieter, from… well… he lives in Hudson and is a great guy who often mules beer for me.
Logistically we decided to separate the tasting into two sessions; the first one being a side-by-side of the six regular vintages, followed by a second tasting of the five bourbon barrel-aged vintages. Normally when I write about beer, I’m drinking one, maybe two, and I’m not loaded off my ass. Needless to say, my notes from this evening were tad sporadic and did not contain their usual depth. I lined up five sets of six matching glasses — thirty-six glasses in total! Yes, I clearly have too many, but for a night like this it came in extremely handy.
Solstice D’Hiver (Standard Edition)
Solstice d’hiver is an American-styled Barleywine, however, it isn’t an aromatic hop bomb like so many other modern versions of the style. It has a hop character, and an ample bitter finish, but it drinks more like an English-styled version, or some cross between the two. It ages beautifully, so I was was extremely excited to see how it would change from year to year.
We poured out the six year verticals from left to right, each of us having six samples in front of us. The 2010 has a great sweet caramel presence on the nose, with less oxidization that I would have thought given the age. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 were hugely oxidized with loads of sherry and vanilla. The nose on the 2014 and 2015 were more hot (sharp), with a young caramel-like sweetness to them that was not as inviting as the older vintage.
The 2010 held up well, although having a certain wateriness to it and little to no bitterness. That being said, it was still delicious; impressively so. The 2011 didn’t hold up as well, carrying the same wateriness, but the oxidization had caused some cardboard flavours to form. It also carried too much sherry for my taste. The 2012 was quite nice, but the 2013 was simply excellent. It still contained a nice bitterness and body, while at the same time pulling in the aged oxidized sherry thing that you want from an old beer. The 2014 and 2015 were fine, and although un-tainted by any oxidized off flavours, they were a little hot and less refined.
Solstice D’Hiver (Bourbon Barrel Aged)
I had bourbon barrel-aged Solstice d’hiver for the first time a few years back. It was a delicious mix of cooked caramel and zesty hops flavours alongside a massive vanilla bourbon complexity that pulls everything together. It’s a huge beer, perfect for sipping during the colder months of the year.
Just like the standard edition, we lined up these five bottles from left to right. Again, there were vintages from 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. The 2009 had a nice big vanilla bourbon flavour, coupled with an intense oxidized sherry component. The 2012 was particularly great, carrying a big vanilla punch and some almond cake, while the 2013 somehow seemed more watery and fell flat compared to the 2012. The 2014 and 2015 were also great, but certainly more sharp and hot, with a drying booze burn that cut the sugars quite well, and with far less of that vanilla cake presence. The 2012 was the best of the bunch, with lovely balanced oxidized sherry flavours, coupled with a manageable bitterness and just the right amount of barrel.
This tasting was tons of fun, but in the end it felt more scientific than anything else. I say that because one simply can’t enjoy that much Barleywine in one sitting. At a certain point, enough is enough; it became a tad laborious. That being said, it was a great experiment because although having subtle differences in opinion, we were generally all on the same page with regard to the dropping-off points. It was generally agreed upon that for both the standard and barrel-aged versions, the 2012/13 range was the best in terms of age. This makes sense. In my experience once you start going past three years, things can really start to decline. There are of course exceptions (like lambic), but generally speaking I like to stay under that amount of time. That being said, the 2010 standard edition was surprisingly good, just going to show that you never really know what age will do to a beer.
We did have a blast, though, and it was a needed break from family life. We also drank several other bottles between the verticals, including an awesome session IPA that Dan brewed. I certainly encourage others to try these fun experiments, but keep in mind that by the end of it, you might not want to see another Barleywine for a few weeks.
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest
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