Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vertical Beer Tasting (sort of) - North Coast Old Stock Ale, 2011 and 2012 Vintages

The lineup at a recent tasting of ours.  Informal setting,
"bring what you want" and with an added component:
an awful beer tasteoff between some of the big brands:
Bud, Blue, Stella, Canadian and Rolling Rock.  
Attending a beer tasting can be one of the most rewarding experiences in all of beerdom.  A gathering of friends, acquaintances or similar-minded fellow brew travelers to celebrate the diversity and quality of the brewing industry is one of life's great pleasures, and is something I look forward to whenever the opportunity arises.   Beer, after all, is a social beverage - it is best enjoyed in good company (that, and some of the brews out there are so bold-flavored or boozy that sharing becomes not just enjoyable, but a necessity!).   When you find a great brew, you want to share it with the world - or, failing that, good company from those around you.  This blog is really just a one-sided beer tasting; I would much rather be sharing these brews with all of you!  Truly, a gathering of different styles of brews, to be shared by people with different opinions and tastebuds, is very much an enlightening event.

There are many different ways to hold a beer tasting; by changing the expectations of the event, the experience can be tailored to suit your personal tastes.  Above all things, a tasting should be fun, friendly, and open.  The intent is not to pronounce formal officious judgement upon the beers of the world, but rather to crack open some brews and see how we feel about them.  Keep it low key, but interesting and with respect for what the brewers have put forward for you to enjoy.  People are going to have different opinions of every brew, and will experience them differently based upon their personal tastes and their prior experiences with beer.  Thus, when hosting one of these shin-digs, be open to other people's perspectives.  If there's one rule I can impart to you about beer, it is simply this: Beer is one of life's great pleasures; Respect the brew, Respect those who made it, and Respect those who like it.

North Coast Old Stock Ale, the subject of today's tasting. 
As a specific recommendation, I suggest accompanying foods that compliment the brews, with chocolate, cheese, bread, fruit and meats being the standards.  Not only will this help stave off the inevitable drunkenness (after all, at a tasting, it is nice to remember the beer that you've sampled), but pairing these foods with the brews can bring out some of the better flavours of each.  Recently I was privileged to try a bottle of Uinta Labyrinth Stout, a heavy hitting brew made with anise.  The host provided some dark chocolate that also contained anise; taking a bite of chocolate and washing it down with the stout provided me with an opportunity to detect unique qualities in the brew I might otherwise have missed.

So, if you are hosting, be sure to have a good slate of brews and snacks available from your own cellar (outsource to your guests if possible), and graciously accept the brews that others have contributed, regardless of what they might be.  Had it before?  Others might not have.  Had it before and hate it?  Others might love it.  Don't be a dick about this - again, "Beer is fun."  Discussing our thoughts about each brew can be really entertaining, especially if fisticuffs are involved.   If you are hosting or attending a tasting, I highly recommend bringing larger bottles (750mL), to allow as many of your guests as possible to have a large enough sample to enjoy.  Finally, and this is absolutely essential, under no circumstances do you spit out the beer.  PERIOD.  

There are a few different ideas for how to hold your tasting, and I'll go over them quickly.  As a general rule, the more informal, the more people can probably attend comfortably:

1) The informal, "bring what you want" tasting, which is the most popular, for obvious reasons. No real rules, other than that everyone should contribute something, either a brew they've been meaning to try, an old favorite, a "flavor of the month" brew, or a real rare edition.  Again, respect the sampling you have to work with: some people will bring crazy rare aged expensive brews, others just what they can find (in Ontario, this can be a real challenge). I've been to some where there was just a massive table full of open beers (about 30 attendees) where it was a sampling free-for-all with no one necessarily drinking the same brew at the same time as anyone else, and others where only a small group contributed some random brews of their choice, and we decided the tasting order as a group and drank as a group.  Both were fun events, so it depends on what you are looking for!  One of the benefits of this setup is that it can be really exciting to see what other people think to bring to the table, and it allows you to taste brews you might otherwise not have actively sought out.  It also can really broaden your horizons when it comes to what is available.  Another advantage of this arrangement is that it allows people of different interests in beer to participate without placing too much demand upon your guests.   As host, something to keep in mind is the order.  Obviously, check with your guests to see if there's anything they want cracked open right away while all of our constitutions are still with us.  As the evening progresses, change your style accordingly, but stick with a general consensus.

2) What I call an "Elevating" tasting, where you start with a particular alcohol content or style of beer, and work your way up from the lowest alcohol or the least strong-flavored beer to the strongest.  Really, just a way of arranging the tasting.  To organize this, each guest should bring a style and sign up.  I just find it easier to arrange whatever people bring into a logical progression, which admittedly ends up being similar to this.  

3) The "Horizontal" tasting.  A bit more formal, but not too difficult to arrange if you give folks some time.  A horizontal tasting means that all the beers at the event should follow along a particular theme, whether it be a region (brews of Ontario, brews from Bavaria), a particular style, a specific brewer(y), ingredient, or perhaps a seasonal theme (i.e., Hallowe'en brews, Christmas ales, etc.).  For something a bit more formal, try to keep all of these brews from around the same year. For example, if the night's theme is the Belgian Tripel, it can be fun to compare different brews from various regions from the same year, to see how they differ.

4) The "Vertical" tasting.  Far more specific, and probably something that you will have to arrange yourself, and/or with the help of a great local beer store or some collector friends.  While a horizontal takes a specific theme, but maintains the year, a vertical takes the same beer, but examines it over different years (or for the wine folks out there, vintages).   The goal here is to see how a particular brew changes or ages over time.  In one of my beer bibles Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, he takes us through a vertical tasting of one of the legendary barleywines, J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, which involves every edition of that beer for a dozen years or so.  Another popular vertical, for those who enjoy this brew, is Three Floyd's "Dark Lord" imperial stout, which lends itself to the collector by virtue of its wax cap that is coloured based upon the specific year (this year's is red, last year was yellow).  Obviously something that takes a great deal of effort and patience to acquire, although some of the better beer stores in the states will often carry a few vintages of the same brew for you to purchase.

Today, we'll try a mini vertical of a brew that is quite popular for vertical tastings: North Coast's Old Stock Ale!

North Coast is one of California's premier craft brewers (for a state that craft beer rich, that's saying something), with its big brews being the Old Stock and Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout - the latter being a brew that is particularly dear to my heart.  The Old Stock Ale is of a style known as - surprise surprise - "Old Ale", meaning a strong dextrin-rich ale that has been aged in order to mature it.  I recently acquired the 2011 and 2012 editions of this brew (coincidentally in order to help a fellow beer lover complete a six year vertical for the years 2007-2012), and so I thought I'd do a little tasting of my own to see how the two compare!

We'll start with the 2012, just so we have a benchmark of where the brew starts, and from where it could potentially go.

Beer: North Coast Old Stock Ale
Brewery: North Coast Brewing Co. (Fort Bragg, CA)
Type: Old Ale
ABV: 11.9%

Poured both of these into wine glasses (shared it with my wife), with a little bit set aside of each for direct comparison.

Dark caramel-chestnut in colour, clear and with a fine wisp of white head that survives for only a few moments.  Not the world's greatest looking brew, but about right for the style.  Something about barleywines or high octane ales chemically that seems to reduce their ability to produce a head.

Nose is quite pleasant, with strong notes of caramel-toffee malt, red grapes, a touch of smoke and leather, booze, grain and wood.  Alcohol is certainly present on the nose (after all, we're looking at almost 12 percent here), but still quite pleasant.

A tasty brew indeed, with similar tasting notes as in the nose.  Big malt blast, with subtle notes of grape, smoke, wood and grain.  Not overly sweet, and with a long boozy finish.

Mouthfeel has some zippy carbonation that gives the brew a strong bite, and there is a lingering alcohol burn with every sip.  I would use the word "hot" to describe this brew - it could use a bit of aging.  If only we had a brew like this that had aged for, say, a year?


Hey, this could work!  Let's see what a year of aging does for this brew.  Like Huey Lewis and the News, we "gotta be back in time!"

Similar colour as the 2012, maybe a bit lighter.  First difference between the two: the '11 had absolutely no head to speak off, instead sitting stubbornly in its glass with nary a hint of life.  A year in the bottle has certainly reduced the brew's ability to create that bubbly cap.

Nose is quite potent, with that same malt blast with hints of smoke.  The difference?  A stronger red wine blast - almost port like - than the '12, and with considerably more sweetness to the nose.

The taste exhibits similar qualities.  The malt is that much sweeter, the palate that much smoother, the accompanying notes that much more pronounced.  Add to all this a mouthfeel that is far less crisp and carbonated than its younger brother.  Slick and easy to drink.  Age has clearly mellowed out the temper of this brew, and produced a patient, wise Old Ale worthy of respect.

Even from this mini vertical, we can see how one brew can display remarkable change after even a single year of careful aging.  A vertical tasting that involves even more examples of that brew from different years would certainly provide a fascinating glimpse into the aging process.  Now, this sort of vertical works best with certain styles - a pilsner, for example, is unlikely to display much change over the years (if it does, it will probably be because it has gone foul), and those styles tend to be somewhat expensive.  These bottles, in Buffalo, were about four dollars each.  So, to conduct a vertical tasting, you will certainly require the funds, the initiative and the patience to get a good list.  But if you get a chance, I highly recommend it!

Next up, we try a horizontal tasting with a specific style - Belgian raspberry lambic!  Stick around!

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