The Session this month includes one of my hobby-horse subjects within its remit. Mr. David J is our host and "Don't Believe The Hype" is the topic he has chosen: does a beer's reputation affect how we perceive it?
Following on from this issue is the whole matter of high profile "white whale" beers: the limited editions and hard-to-finds that plague the beer world. Not that they're bad beers, normally. My experiences with the likes of Westvleteren 12 and Dark Lord have been very positive indeed, but there are plenty of beers out there in the same league that don't have so much of a fuss made about them. The drive that some beer drinkers have to capture the white whales unsettles me a little. The make-it-anywhere-from-anything nature of beer means that the notion of special rare beers is a bit ridiculous, and label-chasing makes beer culture a little less of a pleasant place to be. I find more than an echo of the wine snob about some of the Captain Ahabs I've encountered.
All this makes me a little wary when a new, rare, special, limited edition beer comes my way. Yes I want to drink it -- it's what I do -- but I end up trying not to make a big deal of it, unless it warrants it, of course. The hype ahead of the Franciscan Well's new one was substantial. Like last year's Shandon Century it's a strong-ish stout presented in a numbered 1 litre bottle. The big change this year is barrel-aging. At first the brewery gave no more detail than it was maturing in a cask acquired from the Irish Distillers plant in Midleton. The lack of whiskey specifics left me wondering if Irish Distillers simply don't distinguish between the casks used for their many whiskey brands, or whether the brewery didn't want their beer associated with Jackeen labels such as Jameson and Power's, produced in Cork though they may be. They came clean eventually and Franciscan Well Stout Aged in Jameson Irish Whiskey Casks is the full title: 7.8% ABV in a run of 900 bottles.
It pours out jet black but not thick or gloopy and the mouthfeel has a little creaminess yet remains light and easy-going. The carbonation level is set only little above token, of which I heartily approve. There's not much of an aroma either, but it seems to be mostly a sweet and slightly burnt treacle thing, with just a brief hit of the whiskey vapours if you inhale deeply enough.
Charmingly for a strong barrel-aged stout, it's not a smack in the face on the first sip. A host of flavours line up politely to be appreciated, starting with the dark dry roast, overlaid with more of that treacle and accompanied by subtle honey and vanilla from the Jameson. There's a surprise in store at the end when a fairly generous hop character asserts itself: the big vegetal, almost metallic, flavours I associate with bitter powerhouse stouts like Wrassler's XXXX. The hop tang is the takeaway from this feast of a stout. I wasn't expecting that.
No, it's not Dark Lord, true; and nor is it trying to be. But while it's a wonderful example of what you can do with barrel aging a stout it's not worth obsessing over either. It's barely possible to justify the €12 price tag it came with so it would be foolhardy, in my opinion, to pay multiples of this on the grey market. When it's gone, it's gone: accept it and wait for the next beer.
And by all accounts it may not be around much longer. Bottles have been selling fast in what's already a busy season for this sort of beer. And today offers a rare opportunity to try it from the cask at the source. Only two have been filled and one will be tapped tonight and given away free, and exclusively, to Beoir members. Drop along to North Mall from 8.30 and bring your membership card.
Or you can wait for the second cask, scheduled for public consumption at the Cask and Winter Ales Festival in the 'Well in a couple of months' time (edit: confirmed for 15-17 February 2013). I can't make it along this evening so am planning to be there early for that.
Everybody will be talking about it, after all.