Brouwerij de Molen is one serious brewery. No brightly coloured logos or designs. Spare black-and-white text-centric labels are clean and to the point. Colour and bittering units. Brewing date: 02 March 2011. Bottling date: 08 April 2011. Ingredients. Bottle 889 of 2144. Drink at 15 Celsius. Original Gravity: 1115. Final Gravity: 1031. Translation: not a Munich Helles. About two-thirds of the way down, the label issues what reads like an implicit provocation: “Good for 25 years.” And if I partake too early, is Hel & Verdoemenis (hell and damnation) my fate?
Twenty-five years is an eternity in beer years – and in Tempest years.
I moved halfway across the continent this past summer, right into the middle of a heat wave. I took all the necessary precautions to protect my age-worthy beers and wines from the elements. But who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the heat got to the beer over those thousands of miles. After all, if I were to age this for a prolonged period of time, wouldn’t it be wise to have a baseline for comparison? Ah, the easy justifications. And then I thought about my recent article praising subtlety in beer. What better way to follow it up than to crack a 10.2% ABV beer with the consistency of motor oil and a riot of flavours and aromas? Life’s worth some damnation from time to time.
Brouwerij de Molen’s Hel & Verdoemenis issues forth from a windmill constructed in 1697, and is of a piece with the brewery’s penchant for high-octane beers capped with names that portend doom and gloom. Like their 15.2% Bommen & Granaten barley wine, for example. If a case ever exploded, it would probably light up a small neighbourhood. Hel & Verdoemenis is an imperial stout – a beer that epitomizes the antipode of subtlety. The style emerged in late-1700s England, and, like its cousin, porter, was a child of the Industrial Revolution. The scale of its production made it eminently suitable for trade. Long voyages across high seas and vast lands meant that these beers had to be brewed with malt and hops aplenty to survive a journey destined for Hanseatic German and Baltic ports, Poland, Scandinavia, and Russia further afield. By the time the casks arrived in St. Petersburg, they had been rendered sufficiently complex by secondary fermentation that they attracted the notice of the Russian imperial court.
Today’s versions of this historical style known variously as “Russian” or “imperial” stout split broadly into Anglo-European and American interpretations. Hel & Veroemenis plants its flag firmly in Europe, using Czech Premiant hops as the bittering agent, and German hops from Hallertau for finishing.
Now, before we drink this, we’d do well to use the force and follow the label’s advice: Drink at 15 Celsius. I say “use the force” because it’s counter-intuitive for most North American beer drinkers to drink a beer at or near room temperature. Let’s also go in search of a brandy snifter to hold this viscous, dense, inky jet-black stout. The snifter helps to concentrate the aromatics, of which there are many. Don’t be alarmed if there isn’t much of a head on the beer. That’s common for high-gravity beers. But be careful at the end of the pour, unless you want that dose of Vitamin B contained in the sediment.
And now for those cascading waves of aromas and flavours worthy of a barrage of adjectives and the occasional foray into purple prose. In a word, profound, like the depths of a forest at dusk. Dense, concentrated, kettle-caramelized malt intermingles with dark country bread and freshly-crushed grain. Earthy licorice root and star anise shade into aged saké, with a wisp of roasted barley, smoke, and leather in the folds. Chocolate anchors the aromas and flavours, now fruity and acidic, now rich and smoky, spanning a spectrum from sweet cocoa to bitter-sweet hot chocolate. Coffee of the robust, nutty, and mildly acidic kind announces its presence, and dark caramel puts in a belated appearance.
On the palate, this chewy stout is as thick as Turkish coffee is rich. Stewed and concentrated plum emerge as the beer opens up, finishing on a high note of smoky bitter-sweet chocolate. With such concentrated flavours, the mild-but-firm hop spice is a more than welcome touch, and the chocolate acidity gives the dark caramel, dark fruit cake, and molasses characteristics sufficient lift.
But alas, even an abundance of adjectives cannot succeed in composing a pitch-perfect beer. For all its wonderfully viscous intensity, the beer’s complexity is more variegated than interlaced at this point. Drinking superbly now, a few more years should help meld the at-times cacophonous elements into a more harmonious chorus.
2 Tankards, with the proviso that more age will likely propel this beer into the 3 Tankard realm.
- This is a beer that behaves like a wine. Open it, drink, let it open up, drink some more.
- Excellent with soft cheeses like Jasper Hill Farm’s herbal and tangy bark-wrapped Harbison, Hel & Verdoemenis also makes a great slow-sipping night cap that will not lead to perdition, provided you don’t have too many.
- At about $9 for a 330mL bottle, it’s not the cheapest bottle on the shelf. I’m skeptical that any bottles I buy in the future will make it to twenty-five years, but if this initial taste is any indication of sublimity to come, I’m in for the long term.
Related Tempest Posts:
Michael Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).
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