Hello, my name is Ripped, and I’m a hoarder. I’m not one of those crazy people you see on TV with stacks of newspapers dating back to the 50’s and every fortune cookie they’ve ever received stashed in their front hall closet. My problem, if you really want to call it a problem (I know you, you’ll want to call it a problem) is that I must hold onto beers that have any chance of getting better with time. Most devoted Aleheads will hold onto a couple of bottle-conditioned treasures in the hopes that the beer will blow their minds a couple years down the road. Whether it’s J.W. Lees Harvest Ale (All dated with vintage years), Thomas Hardy, Brooklyn Monster, or Stone’s Vertical Epic, there are a slew of beers on the market that can stand the test of time if you can resist the temptation to crack em’ open. This shouldn’t be a foreign concept considering that the entire wine industry depends on the ability to lay vintages down for years in the hopes that the tightness and tannins of a young wine will improve with age. With beer though, it’s generally up to the consumer to decide if a brew is worth laying down in your basement for a few years. One peek in the dark corner of my basement, the area that stays at a constant temperature throughout the year, will show you exactly how bad my problem is.
I wouldn’t call my vintage collection a problem until you consider the fact that it’s traveled with me from two other apartments before it finally ended up at its current spot. I have 4 crates of beer, roughly 100 bottles, that date from the late 80’s up until about 2008 (The year that I finally got a hold of my problem). Everything from a few bottles of Sam Adams Utopias, at least a half dozen verticals of several vintages of Barleywines (Sierra Bigfoot, Monster, Anchor Old Foghorn to name a few), tons of bottle conditioned Belgian and English Ales (From De Dolle, Fantome, Fullers, Cantillon, Harvieston), and numerous Trappist ales from every available source (Yes, I mean every source, even Westy). When I first started “Collecting” these vintages I’d generally clean a store out of something special, like when I found De Dolle’s Special Brousel and bought every bottle left in the city (Or when I bought a case of De Dolle Stille Nacht 1997 vintage in 2002, because it was the best beer I had ever tasted). If I found something truly great, I’d drink a bottle and then stash a couple more in the furthest depths in the hope that I’d forget about it for a year. After a while I started laying down more than I was drinking and the collection got out of control. Today, I’m attacking my hoarding problem head on and reaching down for something delicious in the hopes that I can whittle down a few beers that really don’t belong there. I’m sure I’ll crack open some beers that are well past their prime, which is why I’m starting off with something that I know will last another 10 years if need be. I give you, Kulmbacher Eisbock.
Before I get into the tasting, I think a short primer on Ice Beers is in order. Eisbock as a style is not your typical Molson Ice, although the techniques are quite similar. There are two stories that generally circulate the beer world about how the sytle came about accidentally. One story goes that a lowly German apprentice left a couple barrels of Bock beer out in the cold overnight and when the Brewmaster arrived in the morning he found that the barrels had burst from the freezing temps. Once he cleared off the ice he was left with a super-concentrated extract that was stronger and sweeter than the original Bock in the barrel. The other story involves a railway car taking a long journey across Germany. Overnight temps would freeze the beer and the “Happy Accident” resulted in the delicious Eisbocks that we enjoy today. I like stories. Today you can take a more scientific approach and look at thermodynamics. By messing around with the freezing points of water and alcohol, one can repeat the process as many times as necessary to change the concentration of alcohol in the resultant brew (See Brewdog if you want to learn how out of hand this process can get). Making beer stronger clearly appeals to companies like Miller/Coors/AB (Icehouse, Bud Ice, and the worst beer of all time – Milwaukee’s Best Ice), but I like to see that traditional breweries in Germany are using this “Accidental” technology to make a whole new style out of the famous Bock beer.
My Kulmbacher Eisbock tells me that the “Mindestens Haltbar Bis” is October 22nd, 2004. While I appreciate that the Germans require a best before date on their bottles, I can’t imagine anyone at Kulmbacer takes that date stamp seriously. After roughly 6 years in the bottle, lets see how this bad boy handles.
Poured from a 12oz longneck into an Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock glass (I don’t have a Kulmbacher glass, I couldn’t believe I even had an Eisbock glass), the bubbles that did float to the top quickly leapt out of the glass, happy for the release. I’ve had plenty of beers with less age in the bottle, and this one surprises with a nice fine lace around the glass. Nothing spectacular, but it’s not the port-like character that you get from many vintage Barleywines. There’s still a bit of pop left in this one. Color is tawny through and through. Nose is most definitely fusel, tons of alcohol hits you right in the face, far more than I would expect from a beer that’s “Only” just over 9% ABV. Boozy, to say the least. I do pick up hints of rum, raisin, malty sweetness, but nothing overpowering. First sip hits you with a bit of alcohol but quickly turns the tastebuds onto the sweeter aspects. No hop presence at all, but after 6 years, those bitches are dead anyway. Kind of tangy on the finish, which might be a sign that this beer has seen better days. However, I’ve had many a fresh Kulmbacher Eisbock and it always has a touch of a metallic finish so I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Mouthfeel is fairly drying, semi-viscous, with a light finish. That makes no sense of course – Oh well. More intriguing than tasty.
How does one rate a vintage beer? This is a tough question for several reasons. 1) You’ve just paid 5 – 10 times more than a brand new bottle would cost at the very few bars that do stock vintage ales 2) You’ve just paid way too much on eBay and have no idea if the seller stored the beer properly to begin with 3) You’ve had that beer sitting in your basement for 6 years and it’s one of your babies, how can you judge your baby? I suppose a side-by-side tasting would be in order, one from 2004 and one from 2010. However, that’s really an apples to oranges comparison since beer changes so quickly in the bottle. I’m not saying that vintages of beer are akin to vintages of wine since climate/terroir/sunlight go into each and every day that a grape sits on the vine. With vintage beer, you have to judge it based on the sample at hand and nothing else. No nostalgia, no price regrets, no looking back and wishing you had one more bottle sitting down there. Lucky for me I’m a hoarder, so there’s 11 more Kulmacher bretheren sitting right where I pulled this one out of. Final score – 3 hops. It was a top hop experience, but I have to judge the beer on taste and it was missing a few notes along the way. I enjoyed it very much, but I can’t in good conscience recommend to anyone that they should sit a 6-pack of this in their basement and enjoy it years down the road. Now, if you pull one bottle out and save that for a later date, you might be onto something. Hey, ever thought of starting a beer collection?