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New Belgium 1554 Enlightened Black Ale

18 September, 2009 4 comments

“Enlightened Black Ale…a highly quaffable dark beer
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A Little Dark History

Many great things happened in 1554. The city of São Paulo was founded, Lady Jane Grey was executed, pirate-adventurer Walter Raleigh was born, the herbalist Hieronymus Bock died. Well, not all these things were great, but they are important historical facts.

Whilst these matters have some bearing on our modern world (especially if you live in São Paulo), there were even more momentous moves afoot in a monastery somewhere in Belgium during these Dark Ages. There, a group of enlightened monks worked day and night to develop a new style of beer, one that took dark-roasted malts and turned them into a beer worthy of Heaven, but that was dark as the very gates of Hell.

Of course, that’s just a flight of fancy, but what is true is that a couple of chaps from the New Belgium brewery uncovered references to zwartbier, a Belgian black ale in a book dated 1888.

Inspired and impelled, they began to dig around, and with help from a brewmaster in Belgium, they uncovered further references to the style in another book, published in 1554, and a parchment dating to 1447. According to NB’s website, BeerNotes and a delightful email from Peter Bouckaert, they had to decipher ancient manuscripts, convert from obscure ancient measurements (what is a setier, anyway?) and at least in my imagination, evade Indiana Jones-style traps.

Excited by their discovery they began to to develop this recipe for brewing in the US, using hops, which were a new development in Europe at the time the original (hopless) recipe was recorded. By all accounts, New Belgium’s 1554 was an instant hit. What they came up with was a modern brew that emulated the ancient zwartbiers, avoiding a brew that had anything to do with the later porter style (to which they are not related).

Tasting a Blast from the Past

New Belgium 1554 Enlightened Black Ale

New Belgium 1554 Enlightened Black Ale

Finally, to the main event, and what an event it is. Put really simply, this is a yummy beer. In brief, it’s the dark beer lover’s dream – scrumptious, versatile and generally a pleasure to drink.

I poured it from the bottle into a glass and watched it settle. It’s a rich dark chestnut brown, almost black. The head is a fingers-depth and which held up fairly well during the course of drinking. It’s a good colour – pale tan and creamy, setting off the ale’s colour perfectly.

The nose is wonderful – there’s the chocolatey aroma you’d expect, a little espresso and malt, with a very faint hint of banana fruitiness and a whiff of spice, and it really whets the appetite for the palate, which is a roasty-toasty malt-and-cocoa extravaganza, which fills the mouth with flavour.

In the mouth it’s quite sweet and warming, there’s a pretty little spiciness to balance the sweetness, and just enough hop to make it interesting This is a robust beer that is all about delighting the palate without being overly complex or overpowering. It’s a great beer to enjoy either by itself or with food. I’ve drunk it with winter stews, strong cheese and also with lighter dishes. Just one thing to note though – for goodness’ sake, let it warm up a little when you take it out of the fridge; it unleashes a full range of flavours when you do, and will delight even more than served well chilled. Think of it as akin to a robust red wine, that you’d serve at close to room temperature.

Getting to the end of the glass, the rich reddish-brown colour looks warm and inviting and that last swallow stays with you for quite a while. The mouthfeel is gorgeous, round and pleasant without being overwhelmingly heavy; in fact the carbonation again balances the robustness quite nicely.

It’s just 5.5% alcohol, which means you can enjoy two or a few without falling over. I’m not sure I’d call it a session beer, but it’s dangerously drinkable; all in all, it’s a wonderful brew, one that I could well imagine supping for a long time as a winter beer, but equally refreshing in our early California autumn.

I gave it an A- rating on BeerAdvocate – it’s hard to say what would improve this blackest of brews, except another one just like it. Hats off to New Belgium for this excellent ale, and a big thank you to Peter Bouckaert and his colleagues.

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