Thursday, May 12, 2005

Tasting notes - Allagash Curieux

Much better than a boilermaker.

Not long ago, I commented to a local brewer that I could probably help him get a decent price on French oak barrels, were he to ever start experimenting with aging some of his stronger ales. He was quick to dismiss what he saw as a faddish notion - one that might grab some quick attention, sure, but was ultimately a gimmick. I think the "gimmick" argument is flawed in that he ultimate success of craft brewers depends on their ability to provide in a way that the megabrewers can't. That is, the hands-on attention to detail, creative experimentation, and willingness to deviate from traditional practice that the craft brewer can afford to engage in will provide beer enthusiasts with a wider array and higher quality product than the big guys. Simply put, the more complicated the procedure and the more esoteric the ingredients, the less likely major brewing houses are going to get involved. Which is precisely why there are more homebrewers out there right now than there ever has been in this country - they can afford to get intimately involved with those ingredients and processes, of which barrel aging is one such example.
Let any argument over gimmicks and fads end over a glass of this beer. The first batch in a limited series of oak-aged ales put out by the often spectacular Allagash brewing house in Maine, Curieux is a phenomenal achievement. Supposedly, a shipment of the 750mL champagne bottles in which they bottle their tripel was waylaid on route from France. As a sort of stopgap measure, the brewery bought some used bourbon barrels from Jim Beam, and racked the batch into the oak until their bottles arrived. As suspiciously convenient as the story sounds, it doesn't matter. Unlike some other "oaked" versions of house recipes, Curieux is a wholly different experience from the Allagash Tripel, and in a good way.
It's a hugely alcoholic beer in the vein of a Belgian strong golden ale, coming in at 11% abv, and with a very clear, deep gold color (nowhere near the bourbon brown I was imagining). Despite a high level of natural carbonation, the head dissipated very quickly, but not without leaving some nice lace on the glass. It has a very spicy citrusy, tart aroma, with the oak only really coming through as it warms up in the glass. The taste is sweet and buttery at first, with vanilla and banana, which recedes into a strong finish of alcohol burn and a woody dryness.
Considering that the use of wood for beer storage predates stainless steel by, oh, about 5,000 years, it shouldn't seem that out of place in the modern day craft brewhouse, especially those who make higher gravity beers such as imperial stouts and porters, Belgian saisons, French biere de gardes, etc. And it doesn't have to stop there, if you consider that even Pilsner Urquell was aged primarily in wood up until a few years ago. Perhaps it's the trend of tossing a few oak cubes into the house brew and acting like it's a big deal that inspires gimmicky concerns, or maybe it's the folks barrel their IPA and continuously rock them back and forth to simluate the effects of a long sea voyage to India... Whatever. If you come across one of the 290 existing cases of Curieux, by all means: buy it. It's the perfect beer for cellaring, as well, considering the alcohol content and the complexity of the flavor. And if you just can't find it, grab a six-pack of (the considerably less expensive) Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale instead and decide for yourself whether barrel aging is a gimmick or not.



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