Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Whale A Week!

Having accumulated a fairly large collection (hoard) of special beers, I have had time to take stock and realize that I need to actually drink them!  I find it difficult to crack some of these unusual beers for just a regular day, often waiting for an event that is yet to come.  In order to force myself to open up some of these rarities I have set myself a challenge.  I call it A Whale A Week!  My goal will be to open, drink, and blog about at least one crazy rare beer every week for the coming year of 2015.  If I'm traveling, I'll still try to do this, but might have to post two the following week if I'm unable to get Internet access.  I'd love to have some friends "help" me out with tasting some of these and adding their two cents as well.

For my inaugural beer I have chosen Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek 2009!

Served in my personalized Four Firkins snifter, I opened this for myself and for Sj to celebrate New Year's Day 2015.  For those who don't have experience with this type of beer, lambics are sour beers, and often have fruit added to balance the tartness of the brew.  Cantillon is THE lambic producer that all others bow down to.  They still produce the beers in traditional manner in Brussels, Belgium by pumping the hot freshly boiled wort into a large flat copper vat called a coolship.  The coolship is located in the attic of the brewery, and louvers are opened in the roof to let in random wild yeast and bacteria from the surrounding area as the beer cools overnight.  Having been to Cantillon twice now (seriously the coolest brewery ever...) and seeing the dust of ages and cobwebs all over everything, I'm still boggled by how good the beers are.  The lambic is aged in wooden barrels, with cherries added during the process, making it a Kriek.  Different barrels are usually blended to get the correct level of sourness and balance, often using a mix of young and old beer.  The most commonly found example of the Kriek style around the USA is probably the cloyingly sweet Lindemans, which is back sweetened gratuitously.

The regular Cantillon Kriek is wonderful, but the Lou Pepe is the Grand Cru or special version of the beer.  This is blended for complexity and uses only the rare tart Belgian Schaerbeek cherries in obscene quantities.  The cost and sourcing of the cherries alone makes this beer difficult and expensive to make.  I've had this beer (in several vintages) multiple times and would count it as one of my top 5 favorite beers of all time.  The last time I had this was in Belgium in the basement cellar of the beer bar Moeder Lambic, tasted against several other highly sought after Krieks.  And this one was hands-down the winner for all of us tasting them.

I managed to get my hands on this bottle on our first trip to Belgium and have been hoarding it for a special occasion.

The bottle is capped with a large crown cap, and has a small cork hiding under that, requiring me to dig out my rarely used corkscrew.  The beer pours a deep almost magenta color.  Excellent clarity, due to a very careful pour to leave the lees behind in the bottle.  A large and very pink head raises in the glass with fine, tight bubbles.

The aroma wafting off this beer is challenging and impressive.  Intense brettanomyces barnyard funk redolent of leather and musty hay.  Just smelling this beer makes your salivary glands clench as if you had sucked on a fresh lemon.  After the nose gets used to the funk, tart cherry, almond, and cinnamon arrive.  As this warms one gets a bit of actual lemon aroma.

And the taste!  This beer slaps you across the face with a massive tartness up front.  Cheek clenching sourness at first that fades to a mild tart cherry finish.  Hints of cherry pit and almond, maybe a bit of cinnamon.  The cherry is present, but the sourness and funky, musty flavors and tartness are the stars of this show.  Every sip is a bit different, especially as it warms.  Body is thin, like most lambics.  No alcohol warming.  No hop flavors.  Just cherry and sour!

Overall I really like this beer.  Having had it before, I found this 5 year old vintage quite different from the fresher versions.  The "fresh" ones are much more cherry forward, while this vintage has seen a distinct drop off of the cherry flavor.  Still amazing, but I wanted more of the cherry.  I'd still give this a 5 out of 5 stars, but the fresher version is a 5+!  This is not a beer for the faint of heart or the uninitiated into the world of sours, but sourheads like me will gush a bit for a taste of this.

Sj's take:  "Very sour!"

So there you go, first whale down on the first of the year!  I plan to do this weekly, so here goes.  The biggest question I'll probably get from readers is "what constitutes a Whale?"  I would consider these criteria:

1) A top 100 ranked beer on Beer Advocate or Ratebeer.
2) Something very difficult to get.  This may be due to sheer rarity, or possibly due to distribution difficulty.  Some Minnesota folk may not consider Surly Eight to be a whale because they released a fair amount into our area...but anyone outside of Minnesota will be desperately wanting to try this beer!
3) Any beer you have to camp out or wait in line for!  I'm talking Surly Darkness, Three Floyds Dark Lord, Town Hall Czar Jack, Cigar City Hunahpu, etc.
4) Something Vintage.

(Photo of killer whale from Sea World website, photoshopped by me and my can of Heady Topper.)


Devon Beau Hammel said...

Thanks a lot Eric, now I'm sitting at work without any beer and my mouth is watering intensely!

Translucent said...

The term 'whale' has definitely shifted from its true Moby Dick 'White Whale' meaning of that rare treasured beer that you seem to just 'miss' out on over and over again... to the abridged 'Whale' version that is pretty much anything difficult to find that is on a given persons wish list. This has definitely made it a very muddy term. Dirty Horse is my personal 'White Whale' if I were to include a 2nd (which disrupts the very meaning of the phrase White Whale) I would add the Cantillon Pikkulinnun Viskilambic. both of which were within my clutches but I missed out.
I agree, the LP kriek is if not the best, at least very close to the best fruit lambic in existence.
This all being said, when am I coming over to help you clean out your wale closet?

PJJC said...

I had an inkling to do the same process this year, Eric... stop being to obsessively hoardy and open up some of the rare whales I've been saving for a while. Perhaps we can join forces one of these weeks and share some of our bottles with some other Primary Fermenters? Then at least they won't keep pestering me to share in the (cellar) wealth! :)

Eric Wentling said...

Hey, I'm up for a share!