Two weeks ago I flew to San Diego to take part in a fun tasting of all the Vertical Epics from Stone Brewing. The event was Livecast, but if pacing that was described as just below the excitement level of watching paint dry is not your idea of a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you’ll be happy to learn that it’s also been distilled down to a 4 and a half minute video.
For those of us who were there, of course, it was anything but dull, and trying all eleven of the beers was a rare treat. None were completely off or undrinkable, remarkable in and of itself, though as you’d expect a few had started showing their age. Both 02.02.02 (a Witbier) and 03.03.03 (a Belgian Strong Dark Ale) had started to show some papery, sherry-like notes from oxidation. Given that a witbier is not a beer you think of for aging, it was perhaps most surprising, not that it was oxidized, but that it was still drinkable at all. The 03.03.03 — a more personal one for me, since March 3 is my birthday — had the more desirable aged characteristics you might expect in a strong (8.5%) Belgian-style beer. The 04.04.04 (a Belgian Strong Pale Ale) aged a little better but was unremarkable to me, just a decent strong beer starting to show some complexity, though I must say it was surprising that the kaffir lime was still evident in the flavors, among other yeasty notes.
05.05.05 (another Belgian Strong Dark Ale) on the other hand, was the star of the show. An everlasting gobstopper of a beer, it had complexity to spare and kept changing considerably as it warmed. It was just a beautiful beer that showed the unmistakeable benefits of aging. The first four were all done by Lee Chase, who was Stone’s head brewing during that time period.
06.06.06 (also a Belgian Strong Dark Ale) was the first one done by Mitch Steele, who’s been the head brewer at Stone since that year. It was a close second to the previous year, and was made with the same yeast. It was almost as complex and was certainly very tasty so it’s hard to put into words exactly why I found the 05.05.05 preferable. They were both great beers, aged beautifully, but the older one just seemed to have more layers and was ultimately more of a joy to drink.
The 07.07.07 (a sort of mix between a Saison and a Tripel) was one I was also hoping to really enjoy, since it’s also my daughter Alice’s birthday every July 7th and so I have several bottles squirreled away until she turns 21, which won’t be until 2025. I don’t think the beer will make it that far, though it’s still tasting pretty good right now. The spices — ginger, cardamom and a “blend of grapefruit, lemon and orange peel — are still there, especially the ginger, were soft and round, making it a fun one to drink, even though I’m not sure I could finish a pint of it. But give me a snifter of it, and I could comfortably sip on this one with my daughter.
Next, Stone tried a Belgian IPA with 08.08.08, which was essentially a “Strong Golden Belgian style ale highly hopped with American hops (Ahtanum, Amarillo and Simcoe).” As you’d expect, the hops had begun to hide in the folds, but what was more surprising was how bright they still were, actually. My memory of this beer when it was fresh (always a dangerous assumption to make) was that they were over the top, so that my impression is that their mellowing with age has had a positive effect on the beer today, though I shouldn’t think it should be aged much longer, if you happen to still have an unopened bottle of this beer.
For the 09.09.09, they finally went dark, with an Imperial Belgian Porter brewed with vanilla beans and aged on French oak chips. Though to be fair, the color wasn’t particularly Porterish, more of a dark copper or mahogany. But it was the vanilla that really spoke loudly in this beer, though I must confess I’m particularly sensitive to vanilla so a very little goes a long way for me. The 10.10.10 (a Strong Belgian Golden Ale with chamomile and mostly Muscat grapes) was an unusual beer. The grape character was definitely evident, but seemed more to mirror a beer aged in wine barrels rather than one that had grapes added during fermentation. Perhaps that what the aging had done to their character. But it was still a nice beer, with interesting notes, although it wasn’t one of my favorites of the group. I’d like to try it again in a few more years.
Last year’s Vertical Epic was spiced with Hatch green chiles. Though I’m not at all a fan of chili beers, the 11.11.11 was one of the best two chili beers I’ve had (the other was at a New Mexico brewpub). That being said, it still is not my cup of tea, so it’s hard to judge this beer objectively since it grabs hold of my taste buds, wrestles them to the ground and all but ruins me for the next few hours. I’m also a spice wuss, it must be said. So no matter how you slice it, this beer is not for me, no matter how good is seems to be.
The new release, 12.12.12, is obviously not an aged beer so we’re tasting the only fresh beer of the bunch. The aromas remind one more of a Christmas beer or winter warmer, with spices like cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg along with banana and clove notes from the yeast. It’s a melange of wonderful smells and tastes, and seems best fresh right now, as I suspect that these spices will drop out over time. If you’re not a fan of big, spicy Christmas beers that may be a positive for you, so how long you want to age this beer is probably directly proportional to how much you enjoy holiday spices in your beer. If you love them, drink it now. Don’t wait, the world may be over in a couple of weeks. You never know.
A big thanks to Greg Koch, Mitch Steele and Brandon Hernandez for allowing me to be a part of this epic tasting. For Mitch’s tasting notes on these beers, see the Final Chapter and all of the homebrew recipes (except for 12.12.12) along with tasting notes from previous tastings can also be found at the Stone Vertical Epic Ale page.