Carlton & United Brewers has this week released the third vintage of its Crown Ambassador Reserve.
The 2010 vintage has been made with fresh Galaxy hops, hand-picked in Myrtleford and added green to the brew the following day. In a first for the beer, a small portion of last year’s brew was aged in French oak barrels for 12 months before being blended into this year’s vintage. This aged beer represents approximately 6-7 per cent of the volume of this year’s bottling and brewer John Cozens says the addition ensures it has a completely unique vintage profile.
“This addition further increases the richness, complexity and depth of this year’s lager however, the vanilla and woody flavour contribution from the 2009 Reserve portion will become more recognisable once maturation is underway,” he said.
He also admitted that the development of the beer is a work in progress.
“We’ll learn about this beer as we go forward, but we are committed to it.”
The beer was hand bottled and 7,000 individually numbered bottles have been brewed this vintage.
As in past years, the brewer recommends a shiraz-style wine glass as the perfect receptacle for the beer, but this year they have put their recommendation to the test. They summoned a panel of wine and beer reviewers* to sample the beer from 14 very different Riedel glasses, including several that were nominally beer glasses, to select the best option.
As a member of the panel, this was a fascinating exercise. The biggest step that the beer drinker can make towards better appreciating beer is to make the change from drinking from the beer bottle to pouring their beer into a glass. However, I’d long felt that, while use of a glass was important, the actual choice of glass was less so. While I knew that the choice of glassware does contribute to the experience and perception of flavour, I had never been involved in such a process to determine just how much.
The tasting, under the guidance of Riedel’s CEO Georg Riedel, surprised by showing how the shape, size and volume of the glass can all dramatically influence the perception of flavour that the drinker experiences…at least within the clinical confines of a professional judging environment where the beer is the sole focus. While the sole focus was on judging the beer and you had the liberty of swishing, sipping and savouring from each glass side by side, there were marked differences between the aromas that were presented, the mouth feel and the perception of flavour. But as soon as the “distractions” of good company or food are added to divert some of the attention from the beer (aka the real world) the differences between glasses is lessened. I have informally repeated the tasting several times since with a variety of beers in a variety of glasses and have found that, in a social setting where the focus wasn’t on the beer, the differences between glasses is far less marked. Incidentally, the enjoyment of the beer actually increased in the social setting when there was a focus beyond the glass. The upshot is, if you’re ever called upon to judge this beer, or want to bring a touch of theatre to the tasting, go with Riedel’s Vinum Extreme Shiraz glass. If you’re just looking to enjoy drinking it in company or with food, any good quality glass will do amply well.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this beer each year is its price. With a recommended retail price of $89.99 per bottle, this has been the headline with barely any discussion of the merits of the beer itself. Even in the world of online beer reviews, much of the focus is on the price with comments revealing various degrees of barely repressed anger that the beer packaging is ‘wanky’, the beer over-hyped and the whole thing over-the-top. My personal favourite description is “self-indulgent onanism”. I’ll wait while you look it up, I had to…
This beer certainly is expensive. As for other questions such as, “is it worth it?” That’s a subjective question that can only be answered by the individual. I personally like the fact that there are beers that are setting out to challenge wine. Eighty-nine dollars (and you can generally pick it up cheaper) is the price of a reasonably good bottle of fine wine and this beer is easily the equivalent in quality terms to a similarly priced wine. The biggest thing that many have against the beer is it’s from Fosters. Some beer lovers will happily spend twice as much for half the volume of beer to sample Scottish brewer BrewDog’s latest media stunt, but will complain at the price of this beer. I have tried both and I know which I would prefer to spend my hard-earned on and which I would most enjoy.
The beer was devised with the intention of delivering a halo effect to Crown Lager. I can’t say whether it delivers this, but with the effort Fosters has invested in getting it into some of Australia’s top restaurants, it is conceivable that the beer could give other quality beer a leg up. Beers such as Murray’s Anniversary Ale and Coopers Vintage Ale – and many other like them – look cheap by comparison and may become desirable and acceptable as a result of the comparison.
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to try all three vintages, several times in the case of 2008 and 2009. Well cellared, the 2009 is drinking very well now. The 2010, allowed to breath a little before pouring, tastes pretty good now too but judging by the 2009, it will improve further with at least a year on it. Beyond that, I look forward to seing how it ages. So far as specific taste notes for 2010, it is a little like reviewing a snow flake: every one is a little different and none of them last. The beer you try today will be different to the one you try in six months time. You can see our review of the 2008 here which provides a good enough guide to the 2010. The brewer describes this year’s beer as having a dominant Galaxy hop character on the nose and notes of Christmas cake on the palate. This is a pretty fair description, though I would add that the 10.2% alcohol content is well integrated and almost deceptive.
All in all, this is a good beer and well worth a place in your cellar. If your budget stretches to it, Crown Ambassador Reserve is well worth buying, especially if you can be patient enough to let your bottle develop and age.
______*I was a member of this panel. But for my own inclusion I would have described the panel as ‘esteemed’ as it included, amongst others, Australia’s foremost beer writer Willie Simpson, Ben Edwards – President of Sommeliers Australia, freelance drinks writer Nick Ryan and Andrew Cornell from the Australian Financial Review. Being a member of the panel I was also the recipient of some generosity from the nice people at Fosters – feel free to consider that when reading the review.