Monday, October 31, 2011

Still Fantastic, Six Years On


If someone were to hand you a bottle of beer and say, "Enjoy... and by the way, it's six years old," would you drink it?

Probably not.

If that person were to hand you the beer and say nothing, you may open it and be in for a nasty surprise as you actually tasted the old, flat, skunky brew.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend handed me a plastic grocery bag that contained four bottles of beer, but he said nothing of what the beer was nor of its age. The labels on the bottles did all the talking, and I was thrilled by what they said.

My friend, Perry, was the owner and brewmaster of the Scotch-Irish Brewing Company, which he sold some years back to Heritage Brewing, which is now owned by Kichessippi Beer Company. In the seven or eight years that he ran his brewery, Perry made some of the best beers that I ever tasted. He single-handedly got me away from the mainstream beers and onto premium, hand-crafted microbrewery beer.

The Scotch-Irish Brewing Company was well-known in the Ottawa area, in Hamilton, and Guelph, among other Ontario cities, for flavourful ales such as Session Ale, Sgt. Major's IPA, and Black Irish Porter (affectionately known as Perry's Porter, or pee-pee). But in 2005, Perry did something really special.

Perry created a vintage Imperial Stout. It was his crowning achievements of the Scotch-Irish Brewing Company, and one of the last beers he crafted before selling his brewery to Heritage.

Named Tsarina Katarina Imperial Stout, the heady brew (at 9% alcohol) was named after Catherine the Great, of Russia, who purportedly enjoyed a good stout. It was also named after Perry's young daughter. But what made this stout particulary special was its aging potential. So much so, that Perry affixed a vintage label to the neck of the bottle. The beer was released in the autumn of 2005. Perry believed that this stout could last as long as ten years.

When I bought my case from him (at the time, it was $75 for 24), I told him that I probably couldn't hold out for ten years. The stout had a creamy head and had intense, creamy chocolate tones. Though the alcohol content was high, there was no high alcohol flavour. Sure, after two bottles you felt it, but it was a satisfying feeling.

My case lasted almost a year. I tried to limit myself to two bottles a month, but dammit, it was great beer! And, of course, when I visited Perry's home, he would have more on hand.

Which brings us to two weeks ago, when Perry gave me four more bottles of the brew as I left his dinner party. It had been at least three years since I had seen any of this stout, and I was quite excited. I wanted to see how well it had held up in the six years since Perry had first made it.

The first thing I noticed when I twisted off the cap was how tight the cap was screwed on. Using a tea towel for a safe grip, I really had to wrench that sucker off. And the second thing I noticed was the absence of the pffft! that you get when opening a carbonated beverage. It made a faint ssss, but barely.

Pouring the stout into my glass, there was a faint presence of effervescence, but only slight. By the time my glass was full, there was barely a head. But there was evidence of carbonation. Some bubbles clung to the side of the glass and rumbled at the top. Inside my now-empty bottle, some sediment. Dark, sandy dregs.

The beer was still black and inviting. No light passed through the glass. On smelling it, there were distinct notes of cedar and tobacco. No hint of alcohol in the nose, though the aroma was intoxicating.

On my first sip, I was immediately hit with flavours of burnt caramel and unsweetened dark chocolate. The cedar aromas that I had smelled carried through to the palate and down the back of the throat. As with the younger version of this beer, there was no strong flavour of alcohol.

Tsarina Katarina Imperial Stout has held up extremely well over six years. I thoroughly enjoyed drinking it. It reminded me of what a craftsman Perry truly is. Though I'm unsure how well this stout will hold up for its tenth anniversary: the carbonation is almost gone now; it may be completely gone in another year or two. And how will the flavour hold up?

I think that this stout has hit its peak. I loved it when it was young, I really liked it after six years. I'm not sure if I'll enjoy it in another four.

But Perry, if you still have some in 2015 and offer me a bottle, I'd never turn it down!

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