Sunday, 2 February 2020

Blind Gueuze Tasting Offers Confirmations and Suprises

Recently, I had the opportunity to drink far too many beers with Noah from Beerism, Matt from Vox & Hops, and Craig from BAOS, and we kicked things off with a little 13 gueuze (well, 12 and one spontaneous unfruited American wild that was added for what we may call 'good measure') blind tasting. For the uninitiated, that means we numbered these products and wrote out (or typed) our assessments of the 13 products all poured before us (into, yes, 52 glasses used at once) without awareness of which was which until they were revealed after our ratings had been completed.

Blind tastings are wonderful for a few reasons: they confirm (or challenge) our palates and remind us of our strengths (and limitations); they beat down our preconceptions and challenge us to rethink them; and they typically involve drinking a lot of really exciting beer.

Drinking gueuze blind, however, is far less consistently reliable than blind tastings are for most other beer styles. Oude gueuze, a remarkably aging-tolerant blend of 1-year old, 2-year old, and 3-year old spontaneously fermented, unfruited lambic (from the Pajottenland region of Belgium), is a very durable beer style, but is also one with vast vintage differences, age development waves, and noticeable bottle and batch variation. This potential diversity was exacerbated by the varied ages of the bottles I pulled from the cellar. Nonetheless, I thought I'd get a nice idea of the standard lineup and I hoped to find that I had been fooled by name-recognition of the big 3 (not counting Bokke) of Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, and Tilquin and discover that I somehow preferred cheaper, more easily procurable lambic.

Nonetheless, here is the kill shot, to be followed by my personal blind ranking, some notes on each, and some closing crucial observations.

In order of my personal ranking (based on BJCP scoring during the tasting) with just a few, ever-so-brief thoughts in parentheses:
  1. Tilquin Oude Gueuze à l'Ancienne (2017) (brilliant, bright, funky, aromatic, perfect) 
  2. Lindemans Oude Gueuze Cuvée René (2015) (very strong in each category, if not tops in any)
  3. Oud Beersel Gueue Vandervelden 135 (2017) (slightly odd finish, but excellent funk and criminally underrated)
  4. 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze Cuvee Armand & Gaston Assemblage 11 (2017/18) (I was shocked to note that the nose is a touch mild when directly compared to so many)
  5. Boon Oude Geuze Black Label #3 (2016) (smooth, has a slight fruitiness in taste)
  6. 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze (Assemblage #28 2017) (I noted that both of the 3f had a milder nose when alongside others for comparisons sake)
  7.  Boon Oude Geuze à l'Ancienne (2017) (a bit muted/mild in mouth compared to others)
  8.  Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze Vieille (2015) (overly malty in both nose and taste, but quite dry in the finish with minimal linger)
  9. Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait (2015) (tastes a touch sweet/malty when compared directly aside the others)
  10. Girardin Gueuze 1882 Black Label (2014) (a bit honey-ish and past its prime)
  11. Allagash Coolship Resurgam (2018) (Not really in the same discussion as the classics)
  12. Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio (2018) (a bad rubbery mess of an off-bottle, sadly)
  13. Saint Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition (2012) (A different tier AND WAY past its prime, with some medicinal off-flavours)
Some observations:

Tilquin is the best. I mean, I already knew this in many ways. I have had it many times, I have side by sided it many times with both Cantillon and 3f, as well as with others, and I always choose it, but not only did I also choose it blind (and ranked it by far the highest by BJCP standards), but so too did the other most experienced gueuze drinker in the tasting, and all four of us ranked it very high indeed. Though I always say I prefer it to 3f and Cantillon (but not to 3f Golden Blend), I didn't realize how strongly I preferred it. It truly stood head and shoulders above the others.

There are clear tiers here, in my opinion (and in these variable bottles/ages): as noted, Tilquin stands in a category apart, by far, but in the next (still excellent) tier, this specific Lindemans bottle held up alongside Vandervelden and A&G. The third tier (of still fantastic gueuze) brings Boon Black Label and the regular 3f, while the fourth tier boasts the Boon OG and Mariage Parfait as well as the Oud Beersel. Finally, I feel like the last two tiers were highly affected by bottle issues and/or age (or other issues - such as being a spontaneous American wild and not lambic at all). Specifically, #10 - the Girardin Black Label - wasn't bad but had faded past its true best before date (or was in a bad aging wave) and, though it wasn't off, it wasn't shining. The bottom tier of this tasting had too many medicinal off flavours and aromas and could have been/were bad bottles or stylistic differences: the Allagash just isn't what the Belgians bring, while the Saint Louis was well past its prime and the 'loon was a regretfully dreadful rubbery mess.

In a different vein, I am getting very tired of having bad Cantillon OG bottles. This is the second rubbery/medicinal bad bottle I have opened recently, and I have now opened bad 2012, 2015, and 2018 bottles. The other bad ones I have opened were aged in my own cellar, which hasn't affected other lambics adversely, but this recent one was from the November SAQ online sale. Has anyone else gotten bad bottles from this release?

When sniffing so many, subtler differences become more apparent. I noted a few that had more muted noses. Foremost amongst these were the two Drie Fonteinens. I always think of how funky they are when imbibed alone, but though these beers remained fanstastic and in the higher tiers of superb quality (even when blind, IMO), these subtler aromas were interesting to consider after the beers were revealed. It's also worth noting that it was this slightly muted aromatic quality that held them both back a touch from the others I rated similarly if a tad higher.

I knew the 3f, A&G, Vandervelden, Tilquin are bangin'. I also knew the Lindemans to be a fine beer but presumed it would fall a little bit lower and, while all drop off substantially behind the Tilquin, IMO, this beer gets into a worthy discussion and commands a higher respect than it is usually afforded, affected as we often are by price and wider availability (which in this case works out well in my favour!)

In terms of general observations, I am surprised at how unique each of these beers can be despite their commonalities. For the diversity of fermentations, barrels, agings, bugs, and blend, there is a greatly consistent commonality here, but the unique character of each truly stands out when your palate is tested along so many at once.

Next time, I may just do the higher tiers and couple them with a few others (HORAL's Mega Blend, 3f Golden Blend, and a few more one-off barrels, variants), but this exercise was a hit. Indeed, as I had hoped to discover, Lindemans fills the void for a lower priced, more widely accessible hit, and I think we all owe Lindemans the credit it's due.

But that Tilquin tho... damn.