How Does It Age? – Great Lakes Brewery ‘Beard of Zeus’

GLB Best After

When Great Lakes Brewery came out with ‘Beard of Zeus’ a barrel aged barleywine in early 2014, I was a little bit put off. No, it wasn’t because they (obviously) stole the name from one of my proudest homebrews, but rather it was due to a small white sticker affixed over the ‘BE’ in beard. “Best Enjoyed After December 31, 2014”, was written on it; a date almost a year from when it was released to the public.

Barleywines are strong beers that typically take a little bit longer to smoothen out and reach their full potential. Age helps to reduce the sharpness of alcohol and also to allow the complex malt flavours to truly develop. As such, they are perfect candidates for cellaring.

While Beard of Zeus certainly fits the criteria, the presence of a best after date on the bottle made it sound like the beer wasn’t quite ready yet. And while that’s all well and good for those of us with the space, the right conditions and, let’s face it, the patience to allow a beer to evolve over the course of a year – but what of those who can’t?

Should breweries only release their beers to the public when they’re at their best? Should we all just learn how to cellar beer? These are the types of questions I was asking myself as I sat there trying to decide whether or not to open the bottle I had just picked up at the LCBO.

Ultimately, I decided to conduct a bit of an experiment. I procured a second bottle, which I decided to open a few months after the release date – the other one I left untouched until, well, right now.

Beard of Zeus

Granted, it’s been a while since I conducted my initial research and apart from the few notes I jotted down, I don’t remember all that much about my first Beard of Zeus experience.

At the time, I said it was okay; this, the result of a collaboration between Great Lakes Brewery and Toronto Beer Week homebrew contest winner Kyle Teichert. Beard of Zeus, is a beer, it seems, that came out a little bit hotter than anyone had expected. It was boozy and medicinal, full of candied dark fruit flavous, heavy on the bourbon-barrel character, with the not-so-subtle presence of diacetyl (think buttery). There was a lot of malt and not much hop to be seen or heard of. It had redeeming qualities, but lacked balance.

A year (and then some) on, I’m happy to say that my tone has changed significantly.

A little time in my home cellar has taken an “okay” beer and turned it into something utterly delicious. It smells so inviting with raisin, allspice, wood, bourbon and an underlying chocolate, toffee and nut. The first sips are rich; butterscotch, chocolate, dried dark fruits and spice, which dissolve into a creamy bourbon, oak and cherry. As everything dissipates I’m left with some vanilla, leather and a woody-pickling spice astringency. Like before, you can still tell it’s up there in the ABV scale, but with all the great supporting elements I, for one, didn’t care. The final impression, if I didn’t know any better, was much like drinking a good whiskey.

As I sit here enjoying my, probably, last ever bottle of Beard of Zeus, I can’t help but think that, 1. I really should have hung onto this until next Christmas (damn!) and 2. that perhaps my initial criticism was misguided.

As a homebrewer, I’m well aware that beers don’t always turn out exactly as planned – and as a fan of Ontario craft beer I can certainly appreciate the difficult nature of the retail system in this province. But more than anything, it reminded me of why I allow myself to leave perfectly drinkable beers alone in the dark of my kitchen cupboard, unseen, collecting dust, for many weeks and years…

I’m fascinated by how time can completely transform beer – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Having your own “cellar” is fun, it can make the experience of a particular beer more personal and it’s often very rewarding. If I were to have bought Beard of Zeus today, I likely wouldn’t have appreciated it as much, having never tasted the difference. In my research, I found out that there were only 1,000 bottles of this ever released through the LCBO. I’m just glad I was able to experience for myself.