Brewed annually, St-Ambroise Vintage Ale is a mix between a barley wine and wheat wine. Ringing in at 10% ABV, with a respectable IBU of 58, this beer is said to cellar incredibly well.
While it’s Victoria Beer Week and my blood alcohol is probably of the scale right now, I decided to crack open bottles of this beer from 2016, 2015, and 2014 to see just how well it ages.
Here’s what I found:
2016: just a couple of months old
The beer poured out an orange-amber colour, much like an American barley wine. The nose and palate followed through on this, with a very hop-forward character that overpowered the malt notes a bit. The wheat added a crisp, dry finish. The carbonation felt a little effervescent for the style.
This reminded me of Driftwood’s Old Cellar Dweller (new recipe) and Ninkasi’s Critical Hit, i.e. a triple IPA parading as a barley wine.
2015: a year and a bit old
The bright citrus flavour of the hops had fallen of a quite a bit after a year, leaving behind earthy and grassy notes and a lingering bitter finish.
The barley and wheat were a lot more prominent after aging, lending the beer notes of roasted malt, toffee, and caramel. There were also hints of dark fruit and a touch of woodiness emerging.
2014: two and a bit years old
This is where it hit the sweet spot. An extra year of aging had really brought out those wood and dark fruit notes, with plums, dates, molasses, raisins, and cherries. The mouthfeel had become thicker and more syrupy with lots of particulate floating around.
Essentially, it had become like a chewy plum pudding drenched in sherry.
This was a great example of how a barley wine can benefit from aging. Being English, I’m used to barley wines that taste rich, malty, and fruity when fresh. However, American barley wines are so hop-heavy that they really need to be aged to make them taste right.
I’ve had my doubts about hop-heavy barley wines age, but this really opened my eyes. The hops faded nicely, without becoming rancid, and gave the beer a nice bitter finish. This gives me hope for how well my new recipe Old Cellar Dwellers are aging.
I feel like aging it for longer that this would be pointless and wouldn’t add much to the flavour profile. Also, the particulate would probably have become a bit much it left longer. Oh god, don’t ask me about the particulate in the Aventinus Eisbock I aged for five years…
Not many people have the patience or funds to do a cellar vertical, but this is a great one to start with, for a number of reasons: first, it only costs around $6 a bottle; second, the bottles are only 344 ml, so you won’t get completely wasted drinking 10% beer.