For the final beer in the Ales Bells series, I reached deep into my fridge to pull out a bottle that has sat there for 20 months. Yes, 20 months! Trust me when I say that this wasn’t a mistake and I knew what I was doing … or at least I presumed that I knew what I was doing. I was intrigued by the tiniest of captions at the bottom of the label: “Ages well, take your time!”
À l’abri de la Tempête Microbrasserie is a brewery I’ve loved since I first discovered Belle Saison, an outstanding and very unusual blonde ale if ever there was one. I’ll grant you that I’ve taken my time to complete the series of reviews in this outstanding and remotely located brewery in the Iles-de-la-Madeleine. And I’ll admit it: I was a bit unnerved by the other piece of information on the label: 11% alcohol by volume. One of the last beers of theirs that I reviewed, Corne de Brume, was a Scotch ale the colour of black birds and a very memorable 9%, so I was inclined to wait for the right moment. Ta-da … that moment has arrived.
So the final lesson in beer history as part of the series: barley wine, one of the strongest of the beer styles. What the heck is barley wine? No, it’s not wine, but it definitely contains barley … a lot of barley. Actually, while most beer uses a combination of wheat and barley in some combination, this uses 100% barley, hence the name. The origins of barley wine are long … almost as long as the ale itself with some references dating back to ancient Greece. This was long before hops were cultivated, but barley and the fermentation process has been around a long time.
The style is not nearly as narrowly defined as some of the other ales describes in this series. To make a barley wine and call it as such is really a description of the ingredients and the method — but the results can vary hugely, from fruity, to malty, to super sweet, to bittersweet. Some barley wines may come out looking like and drinking like old ales and other big varieties. The characteristic the unites all barley wine, however, is that they are all very high-test brews ranging from 8-12% and even upwards to 15% in some crazy cases. Despite the name, a barley wine (or barleywine in America) is all beer. One of the stories behind why it took on the moniker “wine” was because during the Napoleonic wars, wine and good/strong wine, like the clarets you read about in Patrick O’Brian novels, became scarce. It was during this time that barley wine style really came into vogue and was marketed or controlled as an aristocratic beverage … and one which was a nationalist choice to reject all things French (yes, it sounds like “freedom fries” the first time). It was an innovative twist to take “peasant wine” and gentrify it if ever there was a tale.
A couple of more facts about the style before I get to the beer at hand. The specific gravity in barley wine tends to be on the highest side giving the beer a “thick” full taste in the mouth — and before you dismiss that has trivia, it’s worth noting that yeast, so necessary for creating high-gravity beers, doesn’t like high-alcohol environments, so it there is a real trick in creating a high alcohol beer that tastes rich and full. Like the divergence of the pale ale into the English variety and then the American, the English was, and continues, to be sweeter and more malt forward — whereas the Americans (and Canadians) tend to be a bit more hop obsessed and created their own version that tends to be more intensely hopped, like this example, which is why I’ve named this an American barley wine. What’s very interesting about this style of beer is that it consistently is a style that gets cellared … like wine.
So, if you’ll forgive me a pun, let’s perform the post-mortem and move onto this incredible beer, Corps Mort … which at 11% has the capacity to leave you “falling down drunk” if you drink more than one. Let us start with the nose and a beautiful and intoxicating sweetness … and yes, it is intoxicating just to smell this barley wine. Pour it vigorously and a beautiful head will form … but it all fades just as quickly into a resilient final layer of foam that clings to the beer and glass. Like Ale No. 6, this beer is also unfiltered and brewed sur lies … but because the beer has sat undisturbed in my fridge this long, the sediment has long ago settled to the bottom and it did not pour out — otherwise the beer would surely have been more murky. But what you see is the kind of thing that makes amber such a sought after semi-precious stone. Wow!
That first taste? Wow again. It is full, rich and extremely creamy. If you wanted to experience a beer with a high specific gravity, this will surely be one to try. The diacetyls are unquestionably in huge supply in this beer and I’m impressed with the buttery, creamy fullness. Right out of the gate, there is the sweetness of the beer — not as sweet as honey, but with the flavour of honey. Upfront there are also the smoked (charred?) barley malts in this beer which are also huge. Rich, dark creamy caramels abound and the alcohol warms the mouth. This is a BIG first taste … so big that it is really the beginning and the middle together. There isn’t anything else in there except that tactile charm of the carbonation which elevates both the warmth of the alcohol and the creaminess of the diacetyls. What emerges at the end is not something I was expecting: the hops which impart a very balanced bitterness to this beer. There is also definitely some smokiness at the end, a nice char that leaves a strong impression. Indeed, take a small sip, roll it around in your mouth, and that smokey char will emerge in the beginning now too. Do I discern the “May contain traces of smoked herring!”? No, I can’t say that I do … I taste the smoke, clearly, but unless that herring was smoked to a crisp, I don’t taste it — I taste nothing I’d describe as “fishy.” However, I’ll qualify that statement by saying that while I know my herring, I don’t know that I’ve actually had smoked herring. Herring is a very oily fish renowned in the North Atlantic … so it’s possible that what I identify as “creamy” a maritimer mighty call “oily” … and with the smoke, it might indeed remind or even be smoked herring. I have no idea. From this brewery, nothing would surprise me. They are consistently true to their roots, to the terroir, to the culture of the Isles. I will say that there is a famous smokehouse, The Fumoir d’Antan, on the Isles which still smokes herring in the traditional style and the brewery references this on the label.
Let this beer warm a bit more, go back to the beginning again, and the nuances within it start to open up. That “sweetness” is now clearly a floral honey. In the middle, spices will emerge: peppercorn, clove, yes, … and even some cinnamon in the aftertaste? And the ending, the final taste on the tip of the tongue before you reach for another sip: salt, possibly from the smoked herring … or perhaps just salt. And that smokiness, is fully on display, but not over the top. It’s just like an incredible standup bass that is imparting a soul tingling reverb through the whole experience. Quite addictive. And the alcohol of which I was so afraid? Really not noticeable, especially once it has breathed for a bit. Definitely not the booziness you’d expect for 11%, that is for sure.
The only knock some have against this beer is the price. This is probably the most expensive bottle of beer, standard-sized, that I’ve purchased. Having said that, all the beers from the Isles carry a premium … which I can fully support. Moreover, many liquor control boards also add a sur tax based on alcohol levels; so at 11%, this probably gets dinged in many regions as well. Still, this is a remote brewery dedicated to sustainable development and I expect some of their costs (like distribution and import) are higher. I’m told that during the summer, tourist season, it is hard to find a bottle off the islands … so that tells you a lot right there. But really, is $7 that crazy for a bottle of beer that will provide you a taste experience you won’t ever get again? This isn’t Budweisser — and thank god for that — and in drinking 341mL of this beer, at 11%, this verges on drinking half a bottle of wine. There is craft in this beer and you can taste it in every sip. I for one approve and look forward to cellaring a few more bottles when next I spy them.
Stats: American Barley Wine. 11% ABV, L’Étang du Nord, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec
Size: 341mL bottle
Colour: Orange amber (unfiltered)
Mouth Feel: Medium carbonation, balanced creamy and refreshingly clean
Pairing Notes: Savour it alone or pair it with ripe cheeses like 2-year old cheddar