Thursday, July 30, 2009

bottled-conditioned Belgian beers ~ to cork or to cap

I don’t have any official certifications yet, but I do have a bastion of knowledge gleaned from dozens of books and real life tasting and testing of beer. Never underestimate the power of common sense and reasoning. It’s what philosophers and scholars alike have thrived on for centuries.

“When it comes to bottle-conditioning, the cork is almost always better than the metal cap when dealing with complex bottle-conditioned Belgian beers.”

It could also be argued, based on that theory, that the larger, sturdier champagne bottles are a natural vessel for bottle-conditioning. There is a little known fact that I am sure the denizens of Champagne, France would rather not admit to: long before they were bottling their coveted bubbly, the Belgians and other European brewers were using large, thick walled dark bottles to bottle, condition, and age their beers. The use of the cork at that time is uncertain, but it is probable that corks were used. The French, recognizing the positive benefits of these bottles, decided that they would be perfect for their bubbly.

A more modern addition to the champagne style bottle is the 750ml bomber size bottle. It lacks the sexy curves of the classic champagne bottle but is just as effective in standing up to the pressure and demands of a bottle-conditioned beer.

Sturdy 750ml bottles, whether champagne or bomber style, also condition and nurture the living brew inside with grace and finesse. It’s true; I’ve tasted the difference on multiple occasions as I will continue to do so on innumerable future occasions.

My palate does not lie. Just as I immediately knew this year’s keg-only release of Brooklyn BLAST! was different than last year’s, albeit equally delicious, I too have tasted the difference between a bottle-conditioned beer which is blessed with a cork versus one blessed with a cap. That isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions; there are always exceptions, but my tastebuds land in favor of the cork.

OK, so put the money where my mouth is, right? I can, I will, and I do. I also propose this: you put my money where your mouth is by doing your own taste-testing of bottle-conditioned beer: Cork VS Cap. It’s rather easily, actually. Many Belgian beers are available in individual corked 750ml bottles and also in 4packs of bottle-conditioned 12oz metal capped bottles. There are fewer craft examples, but they can be found for our experiment at hand.

So, how do you do it? Easy. Make sure you have a ready source of information (books & internet) regarding each beer and its flavor. Sit down with a bottle of each: a corked 750ml and a capped 12oz. Be sure to have fun with it. Invite some friends over and do a mini tasting of your own. Discuss amongst each other all that you see, smell, and taste. The differences, similarities, intensity, etc. Also, make sure to have water and some neutral snacks to nibble on during each beer so as to not induce palate fatigue. Palate fatigue is real folks; trust me. Take your time. Remember, as a learning experience, it should be fun.

A few simple and effective tasting pointers:
  1. Never use a shaker pint glass for tasting beer. It will do absolutely nothing to showcase the beer’s appearance, aroma, and taste. Glassware wise, any chalice shaped beer glass, large bowled snifter, or red wine glass will work splendidly.
  2. Never use a chilled glass. A chilled glass will keep the beer too cold and as the glass warms, condensation will drip into your beer, effectively watering it down and killing any head or lace she may have showcased.
  3. For maximum tasting pleasure, make sure your beer is at cellar temperature: 13*C/55*F.
  4. Have fun!

As with all good things, you will want to perform this taste-test over a multitude of beers and years. My cork theory is one I have concluded upon after many different tastings over many years with both different and the same beers. It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it.

Beers you can taste-test to prove, or disprove, my conclusions:
Gulden Draak
Duchess de Bourgogne

…to name a few. It may take some searching to track down the two different sized bottles, but it is worth it. Even better, if you can find one of each that are appropriately aged, even better. Then you are not only tasting the difference between a corked and capped bottle-conditioned beer, but one which has matured under said stoppage. This is, after all, why so many of us, myself included, enjoy aging bottle-conditioned beers for their matured sophistication and finesse. Time and time again, that sophistication and finesse have fizzled on the smaller capped bottles and excelled in their larger corked siblings. Could size matter? It is possible. In fact, I am sure that it indubitably boils down to a multitude of intertwined factors.

There are always exceptions, and I have come across flat beers in both corked and capped bottles. Tis part of the Russian roulette of a bottle-conditioned beer’s life. You’re usually out of harm’s reach, but there is always that lurking chance of disaster. Personally, that certain factor of risk excites me to no end and furthers my love for real beer. Beer is an adventure; live it.

But what if my beer isn’t one that is bottle-conditioned?

Then cork or cap doesn’t play as much of a key role in the longevity of your beer (infections not withstanding). There are certain styles and strengths of beers that will mature as-is with sophistication and finesse in the bottle over a period of months and years. Barleywine and Old Ales are perfect examples of such bottled magic. Don’t believe me? Buy a few bottles and store them somewhere relatively dark and cool, date them, then wait at least 1 year before contemplating supping her liquid nirvana.

But this revelation of mine isn’t about that realm of beer; it is about bottle-conditioned beers of the beautifully tasty Belgian variety which blossom under the cork and fizzle under the cap. It’s my truth and I am sticking to it for as long as my continuously maturing palate informs me. The truth is in the taste, after all.

(an original written work by Kristyn Lier. plagiarism is not tolerated)

No comments:

Post a Comment