There was nothing new in the release of another new beer label when Endeavour hit the shelves back in 2010. There was not even much surprise that the beer was contract brewed nor that it was made for a team with a background in wine. What did raise more than the odd eye brow was the claim that the beer was, like wine, of a specific vintage. In addition, the brewers claimed that the beer was suitable for cellaring and would improve over time.
Now ‘vintage’ beers are not really new – you could fairly argue that Cascade’s First Harvest with its specifically chosen hop variety and single batch quantity is a vintage beer of sorts and the single hop showcase beers from Bridge Road Brewers, Mikeller and Brewdog tread similar paths. Every beer is entitled to its fair share of marketing glass, anyway. But what of the claims of ‘cellar-ability’? Surely, as the German adage tells us ‘fresh is best’* and beer is designed to be drunk as close to the time, and point, of origin as possible in order to truly please the brewer.
We can, of course, taste a marked improvement over time in a big, ballsy, barrel-aged and bottledconditioned beer of above 8 – 9%ABV as the alcohol, the wood and the yeast combine to mellow, develop and highlight the various flavours, textures and carbonation level. But is it fair to expect that a modest pale or amber ale at the five percent mark will develop little more than disappointment and a loss of ‘high notes’ during any form of extended cellaring? Surely there is simply not enough ‘fuel’ to keep the beer at its best or better for more than the commonly asserted six month window of drinkability.
Endeavour claimed a cellar period of up to five years and, although they have focussed more recently on the single-source ingredients as a point of difference for their beer, the claims are still made. Far from being a hollow or disingenuous marketing line, this belief is based on the brewer’s experience as well as his hopes for the brew. As a critic and educator in the beer community I often find the beer cupboard or the bottom shelf of the fridge stacked with beers to test drive and write about. As a result, some brews are not consumed in what the brewer would consider the ideal window of freshness.
I have often found that a big bold hoppy or malty thing will age well if treated with care and that some flavours and tastes will actually have mellowed and integrated where they may have presented as ‘high notes’ or ‘bumps’ in the early stages. I have also enjoyed a well made pale ale or pilsner or golden or brown ale that has sat patiently in the fridge until getting around to it.
So, to the 2012 Endeavour True Vintage beers. Brewer Andy Stewart was kind enough to send me two each of the 2011 and 2012 Pale and Amber Ales – a nice gift from The Beer Fairy** – which allowed me to try each beer side-by-side. It really is a tough gig this whole beer writing caper. As you can imagine, I went in fairly sceptical, almost assuming that I would not taste much difference between each brew. Beginning with the 2012 Amber, I tread warily forward and poured what I expected to be a glass of Endeavour Amber Ale.
And it was.
What surprised most, however, was that the second bottle, the 2011, was even better. Hastily scribbled tasting notes (the reviewer was simultaneously preparing dinner, signing excursion forms and trying to locate a missing school shoe) indicate that the ‘older’ Amber Ale presented with a more noticeable depth and mellowness. The malt had taken on more caramel notes and the hops, while appreciably softer, still ensured a fine balance. The beer was completed, nicely matched to a slice of Humble Pie.
The Pale Ale was tested the following night and the results were identical. But in reverse. This time round the ‘fresh’ beer was the ‘winner’ with the 2012 selling everything a good crisp pale ale should – firm bitterness preceded by a fresh citrus rush wrapped around a good solid mouthfeel tempered with a hit of wheat malt. The 2011, by comparison only, was less punchy and flatter in the overall mouthfeel. On its own, an enjoyable drop but paling a little by direct comparison with its 2012 partner.
The result? While a true ‘vintage’ brew of pale ale or amber style and less than 6% may be more a marketing tool and less a promise, there is something to be said for putting aside what you think you know and just enjoying a good beer. Continuing on from this, standing beers of similar style against each other can be an interesting experiment but preferring one over another doesn’t necessarily make one beer ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.
It is also worth noting that assumption can be the mother all stuff-ups and it can be a levelling experience to enjoy a beer you assumed you would not based on a label claim alone. Without checking to see if Endeavour are a Brews News sponsor, I will encourage you to seek out the 2012 brews (and last year’s if you happen to be in a good quality bottleshop) and try for yourself. Afterall, you are the best judge of what you like.
*I believe the German beer drinking proverb goes something like; “Always drink beer in the shadow of the brewery” meaning that, if the beer has travelled further than this, it is not fresh enough. A fine sentiment if you live in a country that has, or at least had, a brewery for every style in every town.
**The Beer Fairy – This is an expression that Mrs Pilsner uses to describe those packages that appear on our doorstep covered in FRAGILE, THIS END UP and GLASS WITH CARE stickers. It does not refer to Andy ‘Bear’ Stewart.