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Beer #41 – February 10, 2010: Captain Lawrence Nor’Easter (Batch #1)

February 10, 2010

In celebration of today’s “Nor’Easter” here in New Jersey, I pulled this bottle from my cellar.  This bottle is from Batch #1, released back in February of 2007, of a dark strong ale brewed with elderberries then aged in bourbon barrels.  Three year old beer, you ask?  Well, much like certain wines, certain beers are suitable for aging, given the right beer and proper cellaring conditions.   I’ve had a 14 year old “Old Ale” that was absolutely amazing, but most session beers (under 6% alcohol) are best when enjoyed within 3 to 6 months after bottling.  More on cellaring beers in the “Trivia” section:

Beer: Captain Lawrence Nor’Easter

Brewery: Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Pleasantville, New York

Style: Fruit Beer / Barrel Aged Beer

Serving Type: 750 ml bottle

Price: Can’t recall, purchased three years ago.

Availability: Limited release – once per year

Glassware: Goblet

Strength: 11.0% ABV (alcohol by volume)

Drinkability: A special treat, and a strong slow sipper, with enough kick to warm you after shoveling snow, or simply watching a blizzard outside your window.

Tasting Notes

Appearance: Pours an opaque, dark, deep brown, almost black, with a thin, fizzy, tan head.

Aroma: Bourbon, vanilla, with hints of butterscotch, red wine and berries.

Mouthfeel: Somewhat thick, with a light carbonation of tiny bubbles.

Taste: An initial sweet milk chocolate flavor builds into a mix of chocolate and a mild tart and sweet jam and berry flavors.  The vanilla-tinged bourbon then comes forward with a little warming, slightly burning and bitter, note of alcohol, not surprising given the strength.  Meant for sipping, it is rich, complex and extremely enjoyable.

Pairing: The brewery’s website suggests truffles, and I found a truffle of milk & dark chocolate to be an excellent pairing.  Another great pairing I found is Reese’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.  With the berry flavors in the beer, the peanut butter in the cups, you’ve got the classic PB&J combination along with chocolate and bourbon… a grownup take on a childhood treat!

Trivia: Intentionally cellaring vintage beers has only recently begun to become more widespread, and therefore there is still much to be learned, and much to be experimented with.  The ideal styles, specific beers, and length of aging still is a source of debate, but also relates to personal preferences.  However, there are a few rules of thumb to follow:

Beer styles with high-alcohol content are best for cellaring. The alcohol has a preservative effect, but also means the beers will change, but not degrade, over time.  Styles such as Barleywines, Old Ales, Imperial Stouts, and Strong Belgian Style beers typically are all good candidates for cellaring.

Cellar in a dark space with cool and stable temperatures. Light is the enemy of beer, which is why beer holds up best in dark brown bottles (beer in clear or green bottles tend to get “skunky” flavors over time with exposure to light), so a dark place such as a basement works well.   Temperatures around 55-degrees are best, since higher temperatures will accelerate the aging process.  However, relatively cool (room temperature or below) and constant temperatures are important, since heat and/or severe temperature fluctuations will do more harm than good.

Why cellar a beer? Beers, particularly bottle-conditioned beers (beers that contain live yeast in the bottle) are living beverages that change with time.  Time can change flavors, bring out new and interesting flavors, and mellow harsh, bitter, and/or “hot” alcohol flavors.  There is also the curiosity factor… I like this beer now, but how will it change, and possibly improve, given some time?  It is something fun to experiment with.

What effect does cellaring have? For this particular beer, from what I recall from the bottle I had back in 2007, three years later the berry flavor is somewhat less pronounced, the alcohol “burn” has mellowed to some degree, and the amount of carbonation has decreased.  Is it better now than three years ago?  Hard to say without a side-by-side comparison, but it has withstood the test of time to still be a very tasty and enjoyable beer three years later.

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