The Horizontal Showdown

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When you find a beer that is really special, sometimes you just want to hold onto it for a little while and let it get even better. You see, the funny thing about beer—at least the higher alcohol strong styles, like barleywines, Imperial stouts, and almost anything Belgian—is that they evolve over time, just like a bottle of wine. After a year or two, flavors that may have been originally dormant awaken on the taste buds, simplicities turn into complexities, and harsher elements, like bitterness or booziness, usually recede, resulting in a far smoother brew. A fun exercise can be cracking open a favorite beer that’s been aged for 1 year and comparing it to the same beer aged for 2 or 3 or 4 years. The differences can be so great, you may find yourself thinking you’ve got completely different beers.

That exercise is what’s known as a “vertical.” Well, I’m introducing the “horizontal.”

The best thing about the horizontal is that you don’t have to wait nearly as long to start drinking that favorite beer of yours, and it doesn’t have to be a high alcohol beer that ages well. It can be any beer you want it to be. The trick, though, is having access to the variations.

A “horizontal,” as I’m defining it, is taking the exact same beer and comparing it on different gasses. As you folks should know well enough by now, there is definitely a difference between a beer in the bottle and how it tastes on CO2. And there is a dramatic difference between how it tastes on CO2 and what it’s like on Nitro… or cask. Well, what if you could get all those variations together of the same beer and try them, head-to-head-to-head-to—you get the idea?

After closing last night, Geoff and I tried it with the Bridgeport Hop Harvest. Although we didn’t have a Nitro version handy, we did have a bottle, the draft CO2 and our cask firkin, which had just been tapped earlier than evening. We tasted them against one another and a winner was declared.

Here’s how it broke down by serving choice:

Bottle—The harshest of the bunch; there was a taste of very dry malt, like rye almost, that scrapes the tongue as it goes down. The hops are strong and sharp, cloying and coating the tongue. The beer is still solid, but it’s a punch to the mouth. Tons of aroma, though, and the flavors definitely linger.

CO2 draft—Far smoother. I was surprised by how much, actually. The difference between bottle and draft was like the difference between draft and Nitro, to give you some idea. On tap, less flavors emerged; whereas the bottle was what I would call a 5-D beer, hitting you 5 different times with alternating flavors, the draft was maybe a 3-D beer. But with the loss of some flavors and complexity also comes a smoother ride. This is far more palatable and easier to drink and the hop flavors weren’t as overwhelmed by those dry, scratchy malts.

Cask—Whereas the bottle version was the driest of the bunch, the cask was the sweetest and the smoothest. The body was not as dense as in the other two, and I think this had to do primarily with it not being as carbonated. Flavor-wise, the cask beer holds its own against the bottle and possibly even surpasses it; what’s absolutely certain is that it is far more subtle than either of the other two choices and lingers in a way that finally washes away without leaving that cloying, rough, scratchy taste in the mouth. Somehow, the cask version manages to balance a really drinkable, very mellow character with an incredible amount of complexity.

The winner was the cask, hands down. I have never considered myself a huge fan of cask beer, but this little experiment, as well as the growing number of really great cask beers we’ve had on recently, is making me reconsider. I wouldn’t argue that all beers are better on cask, but I do think that for these stronger, sharper, bigger beers, the cask flavor is just superior. It manages to evoke so much flavor without tearing up the inside of your mouth.

I wish we were selling the Hop Harvest in the bottle so that you folks could try out a horizontal for yourselves, but even just a head-to-head with the cask vs. the draft ought to open your eyes to the big differences. And to think, just a little thing like gas can change the character of a beer so dramatically.

Maybe when we talk about beer from now on, we ought to consider it a fifth ingredient after malts, hops, yeast, and water.

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