Archive for June 2014

A Battle for the Ages

June 5, 2014

I met Dave in a small rural public school in Grade 6. We connected through a mutual obsession with Star Trek and all things science-y. It was immediately clear to me that Dave was going places. Anyone who could weld together a lamp in Grade 8 from pieces of scrap metal using an oxy-acetylene torch, build a music synthesizer from scratch, or set up and calibrate his own radio-telescope antenna from spare parts found lying around the house was clearly destined for higher things.

Dave grew up into Dr. Dave, a scientist who travels to conferences and meetings all around the world. He is also a zealous member of the Church of Beer, dedicated to seeking out and tasting good barley-based beverages wherever he can find them. This has led him into caverns beneath Prague, random grocery stores in Washington D.C., and pop-up beer festivals in Brussels.

Every once in a while, he drops in for a visit armed with his latest finds. Usually I have no idea what he’s brought until he plunks it down on the kitchen counter. Greenish nettle beer from the Czech Republic. A French take on an American-style IPA. A Wisconsin sour cherry ale. Usually you just never know what he’s going to pull out of the bag.

This time, he gave me fair warning. First, he texted me from Paris that he was sitting in some tiny bar , drinking an ounce of the very rare BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin. A few days later he texted me that the morning after drinking this very special libation, while walking down a narrow Parisian street, he saw a bottle of the very same rare beer displayed in the window of a small bottle shop. So he bought it. And brought it back to Canada. And would be arriving on my doorstep bearing same.

Wow. Tactical Nuclear Penguin (aka TNP) is something of a white whale in the beer world — you hear about it, you talk to people who say they know people who have seen it, but actual verified sightings are rare.

The story behind TNP is that the enfants terrible of the U.K. brewing scene, James Watt and Martin Dickie of BrewDog Brewing, wanted to create the world’s strongest beer, surpassing even the 27% abv of Samuel Adams Utopias. They did this by brewing a monster stout first, then concentrated it using the “freeze and skim” method. (You lower the temperature of the beer to just below 0°C/32°F. Water freezes at that point, but alcohol remains liquid. So if you skim off the ice, you remove water but not alcohol, raising the percentage of alcohol that’s left in the beer. This method has been used by brewers in Kulmbach, Germany for centuries to produce eisbock, although German brewers, perhaps wisely, usually call it quits when their beer reaches the 12-13% range. James & Martin, who did not show the same restraint, kept freezing and skimming until the beer hit 32% abv.

There was a fair amount of controversy in beer circles about using this method to create a super-strong beer — are you really brewing and fermenting a super-strong beer, or are you creating a spirit through freeze distillation? Regardless of whether it is actually a beer or not, bottles of TNP are very rare and very sought after.

I spent more than a few minutes thinking about beers to serve, since surely we wouldn’t just pop the top on the TNP as soon as Dr. Dave (and other guests) walked in the door. No, as tempting as that sounded, this occasion clearly called for substantial food and some quality lead-up beers. In the end, to accompany a steak dinner, we shared bottles of some beers that I thought would wake up our taste buds: Left Field Resin Bag (gold medal, IPAs, Niagara College Beer Competition),  Black Oak Ten Bitter Years (bronze medal in the same category), and Flying Monkeys Shoulders of Giants (gold medal, Imperial India Pale Ales, 2014 Canadian Brewing Awards).  To accompany my own caramel chocolate cheesecake, I chose Great Lakes Harry Porter and the Bourbon-Soaked Vanilla Beans.

After dinner, we slowly meandered through a few other beers Dr. Dave had brought. (He never arrives with just one beer.)

  • BrewDog Nanny State. A low-alcohol (0.5% abv) but heavily hopped beer, made in reaction to criticisms that BrewDog only makes high-test beers. A noble experiment, but to my mind, the lack of a malt backbone left the hop bitterness overpowering and astringent.
  • vladimirBrewDog Hello My Name is Vladimir. This double IPA flavoured with limonnik berries (supposedly an aphrodisiac) was made in reaction to Russian anti-gay legislation. The Andy Warhol-inspired label, showing Vladimir Putin with eye shadow and lipstick, certainly casts him in a less than masculine light.
  • Jean Chris Nomad. A gueuze formerly brewed by Cantillon in Belgium, but now made by Brasserie Thiriez, a small brewery in Normandy near Dunkirk. Gueuze brewers must lie awake at night wondering what their beer will eventually taste like — rather than adding a carefully calculated amount of a very carefully chosen strain of brewer’s yeast to the wort in an air-tight fermenter, the brewer leaves the unfermented wort in open-air “ships”, where any Tom, Dick and micro-organism blown through the open attic windows can fall into the beer and ferment. If too many microbes that produce lactic acid end up in the wort, the result can be overpoweringly sour. However, Nomad must have got just the right combination of anonymous strangers to visit, because it proves to be light, tart and refreshing.
  • Cuvée des Jonquilles  — a bière de garde by Brasserie Bailleux, a small brewery in the village of Gussignies in northern France less than 100 metres from the Belgian border. A pleasant beer, but perhaps a bit light-weight for this time of the evening.

Finally it was time for the big moment: Bring out the Tactical Nuclear Penguin! And this is where I pulled my own surprise, lifting my bottle of Samuel Adams 2013 Utopias from its clever hiding place on the floor of my office. (You could hide several cases of beer in the piles of stuff on my office floor.)

Fancy pants Utopias versus the hand-drawn charm of TNP

Fancy pants Utopias versus the hand-drawn charm of TNP

The two beers presented a study in contrast. Utopias is packaged in an individually-numbered ceramic container molded to look like an old German brew kettle, the 10th anniversary edition signed in gold pen by Jim Koch. Tactical Nuclear Penguin comes in a brown paper bottle bag with a hand-drawn penguin. The two beers differ in other ways as well. While TNP uses freeze distillation to achieve its strength, the brewers at Boston Beer Co. use a “pulse fermentation” method that apparently does not build strength through concentration but through actual fermentation. (Yeast cannot survive in beverages with more than about 12-14% alcohol. I suspect in the making of Utopias that many innocent yeast cells die before their time due to alcohol poisoning, but apparenly they die with their boots on, making a few more molecules of precious ethanol even as they expire.)

Both beers are barrel conditioned, but TNP is aged only in Scotch barrels, first Arran whisky casks, and then Islay whisky casks. The Utopias barrel regime, in contrast, is considerably more complex and varies from year to year — my 10th Anniverdsary edition was aged in bourbon casks, tawny port casks, vintage ruby port casks, and Nicaraguan rum barrels. In addition, older batches of Utopias are blended into the current batch, and the 10th anniversary edition even has a bit of old Samuel Adams Triple Bock blended in — Triple Bock is the predecessor to Utopias, so the batch that was blended in must be at least 11 years old.

Enough shilly-shallyiing. Let’s get to the beer. Opening both bottles, we poured samples of perhaps an ounce each into small snifters.

After hours of strategic skirmishing and preparation, the battle lines were finally drawn. As Claudius says to Hamlet at just before the final, mortal duel:

Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to heavens, the heavens to earth.

And so, we drank.

First up was Utopias at 27% abv. It poured thick and viscous, not a hint of carbonation in its ruby depths. Swirling it produced great legs on the inside of the glass, speaking to its high alcohol. As always, a complex nose, this time of raisins, Demarara sugar, molasses, rum-soaked plums, and yes, a touch of booziness. The nose invited us back for another sniff, again and again. Finally, a taste. The mouthfeel was oily, firm and mouth-coating, the taste sweet but not cloying, with a touch of vanilla and perhaps more than a touch of ruby port. Despite its strength, no heat from the alcohol. The finish was relatively quick, with a lingering notes of alcohol and raisins.

Next up, Tactical Nuclear Penguin, weighing in at 32% abv. It also poured thick and still, a rich chestnut tinged with carmine highlights. The nose was a surprise — tobacco and old leather. The taste was dark and sweet, the old leather again coming through. The cigar smoke finish was long and lingering. Again, despite the high alcoholic content, no heat.

Both are fascinating beers that demand a closer examination of their subtle complexities — an ounce of either should be easily a 30-minute commitment to silent and rapt contemplation.

Dr. Dave left with the rest of the bottle of TNP, but perhaps he will bring it back on his next visit. Here’s hoping.

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