Carlton & United Breweries have launched their fifth vintage Crown Ambassador Reserve Lager with a lavish dinner at Melbourne’s Luminare restaurant.
The 2012 release of Ambassador, which will be available from November 5, provides a bolder front-up hop aroma and bitterness compared to previous vintages. This increased presence of the Galaxy hop character represents the fingerprints of new lead brewer, Tully Hadley, who took the Ambassador reins following the retirement of John Cozens earlier this year.
The launch event featured a three course menu matched to three vintages of Ambassador, constructed by food critic and TV personality Matt Preston. Describing himself as a “beer and spirits guy rather than a wine snob”, Preston admitted to tasting Ambassador for the first time only two weeks prior, over a game of cards at 1am.
The exclusive dinner, marking the first public tasting of 2012 Ambassador, was attended by a number of Preston’s Channel 10 colleagues, as well as restaurant owners, notable Melbourne figures, media and CUB and SABMiller staff. The design of the occasion supported the desired image of elegance and luxury that is used to market the limited release beer, with 7000 individually numbered bottles released each year.
The young vintages of Crown Ambassador Reserve Lager essentially obtain their luxury element only from the high price tag when compared to many of the finely-crafted high-alcohol craft beers now available on the local market. However, five years into the project, Ambassador is now displaying its value with excellent ageing quality by developing a silky smooth texture with rich complexity.
Preston’s fine dining menu began with an entrée of caramelised pork belly with a golden raisin puree Belgian endive, snow pea leaves, pear and fennel salad paired to the 2009 Ambassador. The beer’s second vintage has matured into a silky smooth palate and full malt body with layers of caramel sweetness, making it delightfully easy to drink. This well-aged beer would seem more appropriate as a nightcap to end a meal, but it matched very well to the sweetness of the pork belly and pear.
The 2012 Ambassador followed with the main course of a smoked beef fillet with rosemary and black truffle potato gratin, crispy fried carrot and Crown Ambassador jus. Although not yet displaying the balance of aged vintages, the newest Ambassador is bright yet delicate in the mouth, currently dominated by resiness hop character. The slightest note of bubblegum is present at the back of the aroma, which may be a hint of vanilla imparted by the oak barrel component of this blended beer.
Last year’s Ambassador vintage is still quiet sharp and will also benefit from more time to mellow. It did not quite have the silky palate or full-bodied balance it needed to match the delightfully rich dessert of Valhrona chocolate and prune torte topped with a butterscotch brittle and crème fraiche, yet 2011 Ambassador remains an enjoyable part of this beer’s journey.
When asked about the hefty greenness displayed by the new Ambassador, Tully Hadley praised the versatility of the Australia’s Galaxy hop.
“Galaxy is amazing, I’ve brewed with it in Cascade Pure where it gives a real tropical, lychee fruitiness to it, but then Stone & Wood use it and it’s very much like fruit salad.”
“In this Ambassador it’s a bit more of a pine aroma which might be from the use of the green hops that were really resinous.”
“Looking back at previous vintages, one of the things I wanted to do this year was to lift the bitterness to balance it really nicely, but also to up the hop character in general for both aroma and flavour, and that carries through in the bitterness,” Tully explained.
“I want the bitterness to still be present in a couple of years time.”
“This year we picked the hops on a Tuesday afternoon. If we had waited until the Wednesday morning it would have been too late. They were just ready to burst, full of essential oils and alpha acids, which I think has added to the brew.”
Not surprisingly, the CUB employees present at the dinner were keen to discuss the recent “good news story” of Victoria Bitter returning to its former 4.9 per cent alcohol by volume formula. However, they were very coy about discussing the reported under-performance Crown Lager on tap, relying on the premium beer’s draught presence in limited high end locations, such as the restaurants of 4 and 5 star hotels.
Tully said that there is more to just the change in VB’s alcohol percentage that has been occupying their time at the Abbotsford brewery. All the beers across CUB’s core range have been adjusted to remove the use of preservatives.
The directive came from new owners SABMiller. Tully recalled that their initial message was “get the beer right first and sort out the marketing later.”
Tully suggested that the CUB brewers have compensated for the removal of preservatives from their core lagers by improving and paying more attention to brewing techniques and efficiencies in order to maintain the existing shelf life of their beers. The differences should be unnoticeable to drinkers except maybe for a slight reduction in hangovers, which are often attributed to the use of various preserving agents. Ultimately, it seems that there has been much more recent adjustment to CUB beers as opposed to simply returning VB to its original formula.
As for Ambassador, it remains the same beer of previous vintages but this year it has been crafted with an 8% blend of an oaked batch.
“Not everyone’s going to drink it in the next couple of months, so the challenge is brewing a beer that will last. The oak barrel is very subtle on the nose but it will build with age,” said Tully.
Planning for next year’s vintage will begin in a couple of months time. Tully noted that anything is possible for future Ambassador brews. So far each vintage has been built on the same base beer, with subtle variations delivered by the use of fresh hops and the blending ratios with oaked and aged batches. However, he is not ruling out the potential to experiment with different yeasts, hops and malt profiles should that enhance the luxury of Crown Ambassador.
The hot tip from Tully regarding his first Crown Ambassador vintage: “I think it will be amazing by the middle of next year.”
James Davidson was a guest at the 2012 Crown Ambassador dinner.