Vintage beers — special brews dated with their year of production — are made by relatively few breweries around the world. Perhaps the famous example is Thomas Hardy’s Ale, produced by Eldridge Pope in 1968, 1974, 1975, and 1977-1999, and then brewed by O’Hanlon’s from 2003. A wine-like strong brew of around 12% alcohol, Thomas Hardy’s Ale will age and develop with time, and is said to be drinkable even twenty years out.
In central Europe, the most famous vintage beer is Samichlaus, a extremely strong lager of 14% alcohol, originally made by Hürlimann in Switzerland until 1997, then produced by Austria’s Eggenburg from 2000 onward. Vintages are said to develop for at least five years, if not much longer.
And on the other side of the world is Coopers Extra Strong Vintage Ale.
Though it’s got its “extra strong” in the title, Coopers version is only about half as powerful as Samichlaus, serving up “just” 7.5% alcohol. Aging is recommended for up to eighteen months, during which the brewery says it becomes more interesting and complex in flavor.
I’ve tasted two bottles of the 2007 so far, both of which I liked very much. My tasting notes:
Coopers Extra Strong Vintage Ale 2007
7.5% alcohol, 375 milliliter bottle. Tasted November and December 2008.
Clear amber with a thick creamy head and the “sparkling” light carbonation reminiscent of Coopers Sparkling Ale. A malty nose that hints at vanilla, oak, strawberries and a note of apple pie. In the mouth, a lightly spicy baked-apple sweetness fades to a slightly dry, marginally bitter, pastry-crust finish. Later pours are much cloudier with bottle sediment. Very nice, very well-incorporated alcohol. An excellent pairing for a turkey roast and other rich holiday meals.
Part of the pleasure of vintage beers is that beer lovers can compare one year to another at vertical tasting of different editions. (Of Coopers Extra Strong Vintage Ale, some users on Beer Advocate seem to think that 2008 is the better year.)
Alternately, you can also stock up on bottles from a single year and watch how they change over time. In my cellar, I still have several bottles of the Coopers 2007 vintage which I’m looking forward to trying again next year and the year after that.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of a single Czech brewer who makes a vintage beer. Nor do I know of one in Germany. It seems like a gimme for a brewer aiming for cult status, providing a compelling reason for customers to buy another bottle. “Sure, you’ve tasted our beer before,” says the brewer. “But have you tried the 2009 vintage?” In a way, vintage beers mark the very opposite of the consistency-at-all-costs approach of most industrial beer makers: part of what’s special about each vintage is that it will be different from previous years.
In short order I’ll post tasting notes on another beer with a year, Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2005. And I’m happy to report that Santa Claus dropped off a Samichlaus 2007 just last month. However, don’t look for tasting notes for that — a massive, three-liter double magnum of the stuff — anytime soon. I plan to let that bottle age for several years first.