as reward for her covering my stint at the NGH I decided to treat Miss N, and lets face it, Mi Sen, to a trio of aged or otherwise interesting beers that I had around the house. In the end, we tried 4. The weakest was 8% and all of them came with the weight of expectation upon them. There were contrasts, conundrums and contention. And, as is only right, there was a winner.
The first beer we tried was Durham Brewery Something Blue. This was a 10% bottle conditioned beer brewed to celebrate someone's wedding or something. I had bought it and laboured for a few years under the delusion that keeping it, with its noteworthy provenance, may make it a sought after item in years to come. In the end, after a frank and searching exploration of the merits of such an undertaking, I couldn't be arsed.
The beer had a lovely ruby colour to it and an aroma of marmalade and something vaguely but not unpleasantly woody. Miss N considered the malt predominated, and described it as a great big malt comfort blanket. There was quite a lot of carbonation, and taste wise it had a noticeable bitter aftertaste, some malt flavours that reminded me of a Belgian yeast influence, and an initial sweetness that gave way to quite a dry finish. It said on the label that there were fuggles hops in the brew, and there was something of that pungency that comes to the fore when you drink green hop fuggles beers ,but crucially all these tastes combined perfectly. And it didn't really taste or drink like it was 10%.
Next up was the wild card. The Something Blue had a couple of years on its best before date but our next beer didn't even have one. Nor, indeed, did it have anything so superfluous as a description. Or even an ABV.
Courage 1977 Jubilee Ale was a bit of a gamble to say the least. Beer rarely excels after more than 25 years in the bottle, less so 30 years, but this was asking for trouble, having likely been brewed around the beginning of 1977 in time for the jubilee some months later. Would it even be beer?
In terms of appearance it had a very pleasing silver foil cover over the cap and had purple coronets printed on the foil on the neck, and there was 275ml of it. Taking the top off the bottle there was no carbonation whatsoever - a hardly unforgivable state of affairs, given its age. What there was aroma wise didn't disappoint however. A huge blast of sherry. Sweetness, but crucially no off aromas.
Storage is the key with aged bottled beers. I once bought a 26 year old bottle of Charles and Diana Royal Wedding Ale form Greenwich market and should have paid attention to where it was stored - since all the vendors wares appeared to be locked in a metal container and the bottle itself was standing in a metal drawer. As it was, the beer had plenty of suggestions of what it should have tasted like but predominantly tasted of metal. In this case, bearing in mind I was sacrificing this as I had two bottles, I probably opened the well kept one - because it didn't taste of anything but sherry, malt and, if you tried really hard, hops.
One interesting feature, and I don't know what the proper term is, was that it seemed to have "split". After the strong alcoholic punch of sweet malt and other flavours, there appeared to be water at the end. Almost as if the beer was 90% of the content and the rest of the bottle was water. As we drank more there also appeared to be a caramel flavour which I associate with aged or out of date bottled beers, and once you got past the waft of sherry there was an interesting aroma of leather - again, unlikely to be a positive feature, but interesting nonetheless. Miss N thought its basic flavour characteristics, bottle label design and gentlemen's club mustiness made it seem very much of the age in which it was brewed. Overall though, it was fascinating to try.
Our third beer was to have been the last. We let bias and the gaunt spectre of expectation trick us into thinking we'd need to pour the jubilee ale away and that our saviour would be the Ilkley Brewery Worlds End, an 18 year old whisky barrel aged version of the Mayan Chipotle chocolate porter. All the ingredients were there - Ilkley's pedigree, chilli, chocolate, dark beer and whisky. This had to be the winner. Except it wasn't.
I really enjoyed the Mayan and just as much appreciated the Magic Rock Chipotle Punchline earlier last week. So imagine my disappointment at encountering a lack of fire, and a distinct lack of any balance. Things didn't start that well with an aroma of wood, burnt malt and phenols from the whisky. The first taste was promisingly peaty, earthy as well, and then I expected the chocolate to balance it out and the bite of the chipotle to zip on the tongue with the malt and hop flavours, but that didn't happen. The peat was actually quite harsh and the chocolate non existent, and even after adding the yeast it was still difficult to drink. The aftertaste was almost acrid and the longer the drink went on the more we could smell peat. We had made a crucial error in assuming that this would be the winner before we started. So now we needed another beer.
Its fair to say that the quandary of shall I shan't I regarding keeping bottled beers of strength crops up quite a lot - over the last 18 months the stunning Thornbridge and Brooklyn Alliance bottles I'd kept since 2007 rewarded me richly, suggesting that there were benefits to the aging process. So surely I could dip into another from my collection...
One of the bottles I'd kept had a surprisingly short best before date on given its 10% strength. And having been impressed over the years by their Temptation and since we enjoyed the Something Blue, it seemed like a good idea to drink a bottle of Durham Brewery Decade, brewed to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Presumably before 2006, since that was its best before date. I was going to prove them wrong - it was going to be ace.
Lessons that go unlearned are a matter for some frustration I find and the Decade was no different. Initially the signs were very promising - even though the beer was 8 years out of date the lovely sweet malt aromas that escaped from the bottle suggested a hugely satisfying beer. However, the proof of the matter was in the difference between the aroma and the taste. There wasn't a difference. It tasted exactly as it smelled, and although it smelled inviting, you can't identify all of the complex flavours that go to make up and ultimately balance a beer in the aroma alone.
A reflection of the lack of complexity is the brevity of my notes. My notes are quite concise. "Smells sweet. Tastes very sweet. Strange aftertaste. Reminds me of the sweetness of De Dolle Stille Nacht without the soft Belgian yeast". That was it.
So, what we learned is, being out of date is no reason to write a bottled beer off. Neither is it a reason to hope to enjoy drinking it. Meanwhile, reputations count for nothing, because even the best make mistakes, and sometimes you can't get better than what you started with. So Durham's accomplished Something Blue was the winner.
Now don't get me started on expectation again....