Crafty Pint / 09.08.12
“This is the only time you’ll ever see a brewer in a white coat,” says Crown’s head brewer Tully Hadley as he dons one for the 2012 Crown Ambassador blending session. “When the cameras are present.”
He may have a point. The last time The Crafty Pint saw a brewer in a lab coat was at Thunder Road when we joined the Brunswick brewers for the first brew on their mini-brewery – the Shamrock Dark Lager – when, again, there were cameras present. Mind you, on that occasion only the head brewer was attired that way; at CUB’s headquarters everyone in attendance was soon rekindling memories of school chemistry labs – and not just because we were all in white.
On the tables in the Brewery Development Unit were glass beakers and measuring cylinders, while in crates behind Tully were various large bottles filled with the two elements of this year’s Ambassador vintage – the unadulterated and the oak-aged. The only things missing were safety glasses, a bunsen burner or two and the kid at the back setting off small explosions.
For the most part, the setting was more than mere frippery. The aim was to bring in people from the beer, wine, restaurant and media worlds to sample the two versions of the beer and blend different proportions to help Tully establish the percentages of each that will go into the beer that is due for release in November, a beer that is the one product that comes out of the Abbotsford factory that one could call craft. It may have the same parentage of many beers that make craft beer drinkers shudder at the mere mention of their name and benefit from the huge marketing might of one of the world’s largest brewing companies, but it’s still a 10 per cent (ish) lager of high quality brewed in a small batch by brewers who handpick the hops that go into the brew, which spends months conditioning prior to release and features a percentage aged in French oak barrels from Dargaud & Jaeglé.
The lab session itself involved the participants sampling the oaked and unoaked versions separately before launching into their individual blending exercises. The unoaked version seemed more delicate than any previous release and certainly had captured more of the hop character the brewers have claimed for the beer in the past: some resiny green hop character plus some distinct orange and citrus aromas. The oak-aged, after a lengthy four months in the barrels, was firmly smokey, like a liqueur Tokay.
The majority appeared to favour 10 per cent or less of the oaked beer; certainly a lower level of oaked beer would seem necessary to preserve the character derived from the Galaxy hops. That said, when we accidentally mixed up Beaker A (unoaked) with Beaker B (oaked) and did a heavily smoked blend, there was much to be said for a smaller, accompanying release of a smokier blend. After lunch – and a few hours steadily sipping previous vintages (although not 2010’s release) – Tully appeared to be giving such an idea serious consideration as a dessert beer.
This year is his first in charge of the Ambassador release after former head brewer John Cozens retired earlier in the year to return to the UK. And while the base recipe remains the same, he says he is seeking more bitterness while the use of barrels has altered from previous years.
“The most important thing for me was going back to previous vintages and seeing how they were maturing, then talking to John Cozens about his vision for the beer,” says Tully. “I’ve also been given free range to use my experience from the past to put my own spin on it in whichever way I thought was best.
“From the start what we’re aiming for is the most luxurious beer in the country. Everything from the raw materials, the hand picking of the green hops to using them within 24 hours, to using the most luxurious French oak barrels that money can buy. [Barrels from Dargaud & Jaeglé] have a real mellowness rather than an in-your-face oak character.
“We use a lot of malt and only use first runnings [the first wort drained from the mash tun with the highest extract of fermentable sugars from the grain]; even the last runnings would make a beer as strong as a normal beer.”
The beer will spend another month in tank and barrels while Tully decides on his final blend. It will be released, in the usual schmicko packaging, in November. The Queen has always been sent bottle number one since the first beer was released in 2008. This year, John Cozens will deliver it to her. Who knows, it might give her the Dutch courage for another skydive.
For more on barrel-aging beers look out for a Crafty-penned feature in the next edition of the James Halliday Wine Companion magazine. It’s out in late August and features interviews with Brendan Varis of Feral, Shawn Sherlock of Murray’s and Richard Watkins of Wig & Pen.