Spirits of '03: A J.W. Lees Tasting

By Brews Brothers
Steven Frank & Arnold Meltzer

originally published Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, June/July 2004 (Vol. 6, #3, page 5.)
Special editions of the 2003 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, aged for almost five months in Calvados, port, cream sherry, and Lagavulin single-malt scotch casks, are just reaching American shores.

B. United International, the sole U.S. importer of J.W. Lees, acquired the entire production (about 200 cases of each style) and was shipping the beer to distributors as of mid-May. B. United owner Matthias Neidhart, and regional representative Ron Fischer, arranged to overnight a bottle of each for a Mid-Atlantic Brewing News preview tasting.

The beers were shipped to Max's on Broadway in Baltimore, where bar manager, Casey Hard, served as the gracious host. Also participating were John Pollack, manager of Baltimore's Old Vine Wine, Beer, and Spirits, Thomas Cizauskas, representative of Legends, Ltd., the distributor for J.W. Lees in Maryland, and the Brews Brothers.

Harvest Ale (11.5% alcohol by volume), from the John Willies Lees brewery in Middleton, England, is brewed once a year, for release about December 1, from the first delivery of England's classic Maris Otter barley malt and East Kent Goldings hops. It's fermented in open vessels using three strains of yeast.

The four new variations best displayed their flavors and aromas after they had been allowed to breathe for awhile, something we haven't generally experienced with beers. All were medium-bodied, clear, well-carbonated, brandy-like, and bright golden in color. Of the four, the Calvados- and Lagavulin-aged beers had flavors that were closest to the respective spirits. All the spirits were fairly subtle and greatly suggested the need to mature for several years.

left to right: John Pollack of The Old Vine, host Casey Hard of Max's, and the Brews Brothers - Steve Frank and Arnold Meltzer. Not pictured - Thomas Cizauskas.

The Calvados-aged ale (Calvados is a brandy distilled from apple cider.) had strong alcohol with touches of apples in the finish and aftertaste. The Lagavulin version displayed a restrained peat aroma with a definite but limited scotch character. The port variety was particularly viscous with eveidence of very sweet, tawny port. The sherry version combined orange and brandy, reminding one of Triple Sec.

In addition to the four new spirit-aged versions of Harvest Ale, Max's provided cellared vintages from 2001, 1999, 1997, 1988, and 1986. The 2001 served as a benchmark. It had matured well, with an emerging apricot and melon fruitiness and sherry and sweet sauterne overtones. The 1999 and 1997 vintages had grown in complexity and fruitiness. In the later vintages, the fruitiness attenuated, and a more brandy-like quality came to the forefront.

As Cizauskas summed it up, "Who needs brandy when you have ales such as these?"

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