An Ode to Cellar-Aged Artwork
Old Stock Ale Cellar Reserve (2013) Bourbon Barrel Aged – $25 a bottle. Twenty five dollars, for a single bottle. A single bottle of beer. A single bottle of beer which costs twenty five dollars. Seriously… what am I doing with this?
I was hesitant. Possibly, I was even intimidated by this bottle of beer. Possessing all the special nuances I typically find myself seeking out, this bourbon barrel aged, two-year-old cellar dweller sat for nearly an entire week, staring at me from its perch on my desk. Within the range of excuses I gave myself for why I had not yet unwound the wire and popped the cork on this 500 ml. of refined wonder from North Coast Brewing, the central question of delusion and corruption occurred frequently. That and possibly a worry that the hype and wonder of this special release – which in its own right hit all of the right notes to pique my interest – may not live up to all my expectations.
With new and fantastic beverages to take home and try each night, I found the Old Stock set apart from the others, even before I had tried it. This beer was to me what a fine vintage vino is to a wine country, sniff-and-sip aristocrat. This, unlike even the more out-of-the-way brews I typically come across, was essentially a special occasion in a bottle.
Typically those who may be less instinctively compelled to imbibe the delicious fermentation immediately upon procuring it, may be inclined to further cellar age it themselves, letting its weighty malted spirit mature even more for later consumption on a special occasion of some kind. Much as one might hold on to a 25-year-old scotch waiting for some auspicious moment of personal achievement with the knowledge that it’ll only get better as you do, cellar reserves are often released for this very purpose and it is one that any craft beer professional knows full well about as they ponder the contents of their own shop’s climate-controlled cellar.
Yet in even this, I, despite my own innate reluctance that grew as the bottle glared at me in a challenging stoic stare from beside my external hard drive and the electronic cigarette which had failed to rid me of my smoking habit, even with my hesitancy to spoil a great beer on a less than noteworthy occasion, I finally gave into instinct and declared today as a special enough occasion, to give it a proper sit-down.
The cork came out easily, accompanied by the satisfying noise of a holiday pop gun. The scent of this delicious brew filled my nose as I took a sniff near the mouth of the bottle. Then, the pour…
A rich, luscious, dark amber-ish brown slid delicately into the glass. The top foam surged momentarily, forming a subtle, off-white and short-lived head which dissipated rather quickly into the dark and heavy body below. The sweet, sweet weight of the bourbon flavor provided the first step in this whirling dance of flavor and robust body profile. The smooth, nibbling notes of the heavyweight, 14.1% alcohol-per-volume champion then follow shortly, serving as a definitive reminder of the sorts of profound beauty which only time and patience can create.
Upon my third sip every ounce of doubt or worry regarding my timing, my impulse to consume the beverage, or the lingering notions that my palate had been corrupted by something I had eaten at some point in the day, melted away in a wash of sweet and well-rounded malty reassurance. Upon my fourth, cheers went up from the back of my mind as my nervous system processed the complex and mature interpretation of this most intense sensory stimuli.
For ale drinkers like myself, and those who tend to favor malt to hops, sweet to bitter and true complexity to strident originality, describing this special brew as “great” is an understatement. Granting that I myself am still something of a neophyte to the world of beer, I have in my few months exploring the world, fallen victim to the increasingly common allure of bourbon barrel aging. Beyond my own simple affinity for bourbon, whiskey and scotch, what I have come to discover about the process itself, as well as its results, has created in me not only an enthusiastic fanboy for the styling, but a howling and devoted acolyte, dedicated to spreading the word of its brilliance whenever and wherever possible.
To begin with, we have the nature of bourbon. Compared to drier scotches and the often bite-focused whiskeys, bourbon is notable for its comparative sweetness. Aged in oak casks, bourbon – like beer – tends to take on the sweeter flavoring of different sugars, depending on the mash and process. However unlike some other spirits, bourbon requires not only oak casks to ferment in, but also requires that those casks be new and unused. As such, the relatively still-fresh hints of bourbon when combined in the fermentation of beers – in this case, ale – serve to elevate the flavor profiles themselves in generally spectacular fashion.
While other varieties such as stouts, porters, Belgians or bocks may each gain a thorough body upgrade and subtle notes of sweetness or even tartness from bourbon casks, the process would seem to serve ales especially well. Given the sometimes nutty, sometimes malty nature one often encounters when indulging in these browner sorts of brews, the added robust sweetness offered by bourbon and oak square perfectly with the existing taste. Added to this, in the case of this particular release from Old Stock, the bite of a matured maltiness wrought from letting the brew linger in a dark and chilled environment, provides to the drinker an experience which I’m tempted to label as “perfect.”
So, as such, there are no suggested pairings with this. In fact, I would advise against pairing it with anything. This is a beer that is just what I described, an experience. This is a beer which made my muscle fibers and even individual nerves cheer in appreciation. This is a beer which, as I presently look on the last quarter of my glass with a mournful gaze, makes me want to enjoy it slowly for the sort of experience that assures you that you will miss it when it’s gone.
(…and now it’s gone – and I’m already missing it.)
This beer is a gourmet desert, made to be served after what is an epic day of achievement in celebration of your accomplishments, yet one which if you open on your own for less than a phenomenal reason, will in the act itself create a special occasion.
At the end now, I’m looking at the bottom of the glass. Stark reflective transparent clearness dominates the glass as a few swirls, a meager sip of dark redness remain at the bottom. I lift it to the light to get a look at what remains of this, my experience. Within its thick, now opaque remains, I find a drifting cloud of heavy red sediment.
This is the part where its over. This is where it’s supposed to stop…
I pour the remainder onto my tongue and linger on it. This is a fine goodbye. A poetic farewell. Often called the “god’s share,” I defy the divine commandment to leave what remains. It’s not a share, but a parting gift. In this final sip, a reminder of what is good and right about beer and brewing is presented and for it, I find myself grateful.
Without any further hesitancy or reservation, I can say with certainty that to date, this is the finest brew I’ve ever had. I’m relatively sure at some point in the near future, I’ll find myself springing for another without even needing to rationalize the expense to myself.
Sometimes an indulgence itself is a worthy enough reason to put yourself out a few bucks and linger privately on something you find beautiful. This beer is beautiful and I look forward to indulging again.
Nicholas Goroff is a beer lover, writer, actor, ex-political professional and devoted anti-ideologue. Follow him on Twitter @wizardofcause.
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