It is Australia’s most luxurious beer, according to the brewer, but Crown Ambassador Reserve Lager is also one of the nation’s most intriguing brews. This beer uses the same base ingredients as its forerunner, the often chastised Crown Lager, yet offers a remarkably different drinking experience and meritable reputation as a distinctive Australian craft beer. It is a beer that requires reserved respect through years of cellaring and then slow and considered consumption, produced by a company that is desperate to see Australians drinking more beer, more often.
The price and packaging of Crown Ambassador signifies indulgence and sophistication. However, many still speculate whether a beer, the drink of common man, can ever truly emulate such prestige. The brewers speak of their Ambassador Reserve Lager as a beer to rival the finest of wine, to be valued by cellaring. In the same way Penfolds Grange has become an iconic brand, they hope that through time this annual small batch brew will build a regal reputation among connoisseurs, collectors and the best restaurants across the globe.
The product provides and interesting insight into part of Foster’s brand strategy, displaying a desire to be highly regarded as a valuable and region-specific icon rather than just a pursuit for product recognition and loyalty. It is an approach that requires time and hence may not be ideal in the rapidly evolving beer market, which is possibly reflected in the recent decline in CUB beer sales. With various levels of uncertainty present across the company, the push is on to secure the future of Crown Ambassador Reserve Lager by making the 2012 release the best, most majestic vintage yet.
Now in its fifth year of vintage, the team behind Crown Ambassador is confident that this beer is yet to demonstrate its full value, with the next five years to provide the real showcase for Ambassador’s aging qualities.
Earlier this week a small group from across the media, beer, wine and restaurant industries were invited to CUB’s Abbotsford brewery to participate in a Crown Ambassador blending masterclass, followed by a generous opportunity to vertically sample previous vintages over lunch in one of Melbourne’s hottest new restaurants. The aim of the blending session was to sample various blend ratios of the four month oak-aged and un-oaked 2012 vintage Crown Ambassador to determine the best mix for its November release.
The 2012 Crown Ambassador Reserve Lager was brewed back in March on the Brewery Development Unit plant at Abbotsford, a small traditional brewhouse that sits in a room directly adjacent to the massive brewery’s industrial brewing and packaging facilities. The brew contained the same malt, lager yeast and Pride of Ringwood hops for bittering used for the regular Crown Lager. Galaxy hops were added for flavour during the 90 minute boil, with additional fresh Galaxy cones also added late to the whirlpool for aroma.
In the past Ambassador has been produced through a blend of the previous year’s vintage with the new vintage, mixing around 4-7% of the aged vintage with the new batch. This year both of the blend components are from the current year’s batch, with approximately 14 per cent of the total brew placed into two 285L French oak barrels from Dargaud et Jaegle following fermentation.
This week the barrels were opened for the first time since March to prepare the for the blending process, after which the beer will be bottled for conditioning then released in November. We blind tasted the oaked and unoaked versions side by side, which emphasised the difference imparted by the oak barrels, then set about mixing the two versions to find the right balance.
The unoaked beer presented a fine young beer in it’s own right, pouring transparent with a golden-amber hue. The vibrant aroma was full of the citrus and passionfruit characters expected from Galaxy hops. In the mouth it was light and flavoursome, a little green and sweet but still proving that the balance of this big beer would be very good after conditioning.
In contrast, the oaked Ambassador was cloudy with a lush aroma of orange and fruitcake. The body was dense and the alcohol was warming. Almost indistinguishable as beer at first, many might confuse it for a Port or Tokay in a blind tasting. The oak aged version soon lined my throat with tannins and a little burn that demonstrated the need for such a powerful wooded brew to mellow through cellaring. In this case, blending in only a small percentage would be required to enhance the base beer.
The self-directed experiments in blend percentages, using scientific glass beakers and measuring cylinders, lead to a consensus amongst the group that no more than 10 per cent of the oak aged should be used. After 10 per cent the oak began to overpower the unoaked version, stripping away the hop vibrancy and bitterness of the fresh beer. The feedback was recorded for the brewers to study as they finalise the 2012 vintage specifications.
“I came in today with a preconceived idea about what I wanted to blend to get the flavour I thought I was going to get,” noted Tully Hadley, “and to be honest I’ve changed my thinking a little bit about how that’s going to work.
“Now I’m probably going to go into the blending process with a lower ratio than I first thought. Through today’s session, taking on everyone’s comments and tasting last year’s vintage, seeing how that has aged, the oak is really developing and coming to the front, so I think I can play that off a bit with the fresh beer that we have in the tank. I was surprised by that, but that’s what today was about. At the moment, I am really happy with where is brew is at.”
It is Tully Hadley’s first year as the lead brewer on Crown Ambassador, following the retirement of the John Cozens earlier this year. A Western Australian native and qualified chemist, Tully has already amounted a significant resume of brewing credentials at age 31. He has brewed for Fosters at Matilda Bay and Cascade and now runs the filtration department at the CUB’s home in Abbotsford. Tully played key roles in the development of Fat Yak and Cascade First Harvest and has been an AIBA judge for the last 5 years. In crafting his own vintage of Ambassador, Tully’s primary objective was to increase the bitterness.
Tully received the handover from John Cozens with a trip to the Rostrevor Hop Gardens in Myrtleford to pick the fresh hops for the 2012 Crown Ambassador.
“The hops were right at their peak. It had been a very wet season so they were growing very well,” noted Tully.
“The hop flowers were right at that stage where they had opened and the oily resin was just starting to come out.”
The brewers returned to Melbourne and added the hops within 24 hours of picking to maximise the impact of the fresh ingredients.
“We added the actual Galaxy cones to the whirlpool, so essentially it was the equivalent of running the brew through a hop-back,” Tully explained.
In 2008 the Fosters marketing claimed that Ambassador was pioneering and innovative, creating a new luxury style of beer never before seen in Australia. In 2006, two years before the Crown Ambassador was first brewed, Redoak was impressing drinkers and international beer judges with their 12% abv Special Reserve barley wine and Framboise Froment Belgain. They were sold 250ml bottles priced at more than $50. Murray’s Brewing released their first Anniversary Ale in January 2007, a 10% barley wine packaged in corked 750ml wine bottles released. Even Bridge Road Brewer’s Chevalier range has been brewed since 2006. Prior to that, Australia’s early brewing history is rich with strong, expensive and indulgent beer.
Ultimately, luxury is subjective. Where Crown Ambassador does excel as a luxury item is in the package as a whole, combining all elements – a delicate and flavoursome strong beer in extravagant packaging, sold at a high price, scarcity, ability to age and it’s individuality in contrast to all other lagers produced at Carlton United Brewers.
The 10% abv Ambassador Reserve Lager is hand bottled into an elegant 750 champagne-style bottle, similar to that used by the luxurious and world renowned Champagne Krug. With beer products no longer limited to tradition bottle shapes and sizes, Ambassador is a fine example of sourcing an artisan package to match the beer’s style and character.
Over an exclusive degustation lunch with the brewer and PR team at Moon Under Water in Fitzroy, we paired with our food a procession of Crown Ambassador vintages (except for the infamous 2010 vintage, which contained a fault). For this taster, the 2009 vintage Crown Ambassador is currently tasting superb, even more so than the original vintage from 2008. If cellared correctly, potentially for another five years or more, both could develop further, for better or worse. Right now, if you still posses a bottle of the 2009 Crown Ambassador it may be a fine time to drink it for a special occasion or try it alongside this year’s release, which will arrive on the market during November.
View more photos from the 2012 Crown Ambassador Reserve blending masterclass on the Brews News Facebook page.