Sometimes I get sent a bottle of beer that I don’t know exactly what to do with. In this case, it’s Bush Pilot Brewing Company’s Stormy Monday.
I’m a little conflicted about this beer because I’ve seen most of its stages of development. Before it was brewed, I got to see the recipe. I’m pretty sure it was this beer since I’ve only ever seen one recipe with dried quince in it brewed at Niagara College.
I remember thinking at the time that it would be ludicrous. Seven malts in a beer is almost unheard of. Five hop varieties might make it into a high end IPA. I remember my main objection to the recipe was the amount of dried fruit going into the fermenter, which would almost certainly soak liquid and create some pretty significant volume loss on the way to packaging. Then there was the spice load. And the maple syrup. At the time, I didn’t know about the Calvados barrels that the beer would be aged in, but beyond a certain point you can’t even feign surprise.
What I didn’t know was that it would be the first offering from Bush Pilot Brewing Company, which is a collaboration between Roland and Russell and Anders Kissmeyer, Gypsy Brewer Extraordinaire. Vlado from Roland and Russell points out that the main reason they decided on a Barley Wine is because the first thing they imported was Thomas Hardy’s Barley Wine. The other reason that they decided on a Barley Wine was because it represented a challenge. You can’t accuse a brewery of taking the easy path if their first beer is the size of Helsinki.
It weighs in at 11% and the 750ml bottle can apparently be aged for 8 years. The best before date is listed as October 2020 (although at that point, you can give or take a month.) It represents a collaborative contract brew between Niagara College and Nickel Brook. It is probably the first Canadian beer to use Calvados barrels (although I’ve seen a similar treatment used to great effect on Moor’s Freddy Walker.) It’s always difficult to find an opportunity to open a bottle like this. There’s a question of appropriateness. Given that the nice people at Roland and Russell expect feedback, I have decided that Wednesday morning is as good a time as any.
Once you get through the waxed top (I knew I owned steak knives for a reason) and pop the crown, there’s an immediate aroma of mulled cider detectable from nearly a meter out. It pours a reddish tinged brown and is nearly opaque with only a trace of lacing around the rim of the glass. You’ll probably want a snifter for this one.
It’s a pretty complex aroma with dried fig, clove and vanilla in addition to pretty significant apple pie spice. There’s a slightly boozy note that’s hard to ignore completely, but at 11% that’s to be expected. The flavour runs sweet to bitter on the palate, starting with some calvados stickiness and malt, fading away into a lingering bitter finish the intensity of which never really seems to fade; a feeling of dried spices in the throat.
It’s an interesting beer. I think that there is probably a fine line between complexity and confusion. I sit here wondering whether the beer would be noticeably different if a couple of the ingredients had gone missing. Would I miss, for instance, the juniper berries? The quince? I’m wonder if this has gone beyond the sweet spot at which it is more than the sum of its parts and is now becoming less cohesive as a result of overpopulation. I wonder whether any brewer is clever enough to know going into a recipe how 25 separate ingredients are going to interact with each other.
I have a little difficulty here in that I don’t have much to compare it to even for seasoned beer drinkers. I suppose the closest thing might be a Traquair Jacobite Ale if you really pushed the alcohol and spice content.
That said, I don’t want to come down too hard on Stormy Monday. It is, at the very least, ambitious. It is big. It is bold. It’s got a certain amount of bravado. It’s actually conceptually a good fit for a company named after a Bush Pilot. Imagine trying to land a fast moving flying vehicle on a small lake without ending up with your pontoons wrapped around a douglas fir. That takes some chutzpah. So does releasing a Barley Wine of this complexity in Ontario.