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On spring break, in 2007, in a hidden-away bar in Brussels, there was a college junior, sitting with a group of new friends, listening attentively to the server’s descriptions of the classic Belgian beers on offer. He didn’t especially understand the descriptions, so he did what any college junior with no working knowledge of Belgian beer would do: He waited his turn to order, and when it came, he ordered the strongest thing on the menu.
That beer was Chimay Grande Réserve. That bar was prrrrobably La Porte Noire. And that college junior, of course, was me.
Before I drank Chimay Grande Réserve for the first time, I’d had only a keyhole view into what the world of beer had to offer. Four days prior, at The Globe Irish Pub in Copenhagen, I’d had my first Guinness, which was also my first stout. Three days before, at the bar of the Novotel in Kirchberg, Luxembourg, I’d tried Leffe Blonde, the first real evidence I encountered that beer could be not merely tolerable, not just a means to an end, but actually delicious in its own right. I no longer find Leffe especially delicious, really, but at the time, it was a goddamn birthday cake for a man who’d never eaten anything but Wonderbread.
Two days before that night, I had a bottle of Duvel, one of the finest beers Belgium has to offer, at a gay bar in central Luxembourg known much more for its “cock coladas” in the sort of festive glasses you’ll have no trouble imagining than for its beer list. When I ordered that Duvel, I was already drunk well past the point of being able to properly appreciate it. Later, I tried to explain to the bartender how to make a martini, which is apparently not a thing in Luxembourg, and then I drank the awful thing he gave me, and then I tried to explain again and drank the equally awful result. I had a very bad night and a very bad hangover the next morning, and on my first day in Brussels, I didn’t drink anything at all.
But the next night, there I was in a cozy little beer hall, sitting at a long wooded table on a long wooden bench, sipping a gold-rimmed chalice of the strongest, most flavorful beer I’d ever had, Chimay Bleue. (The same beer, back then, was labeled as Bleue in the 330ml bottle, and Grande Réserve in the 750ml. Chimay’s since switched to calling both of them Grande Réserve.) It was a far, far bigger revelation than Leffe Blonde had been, chocolatey and spicy and fruity all at once. It wasn’t just the best beer I’d ever tasted, it was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. Even the beer’s background is fascinating: It’s been brewed in the Scourmont Abbey, a Belgian Trappist monastery, since 1862, in one of only eleven officially recognized Trappist breweries. At that time, in 2007, there were only seven.
Later that night, in the Delirium Cafe, world-famous for its record-holding menu of more than 2,000 brews, I ordered another Guinness. Sometimes there are just too many choices.
A few months ago, in the beer section of the grocery store, I unexpectedly spotted a blue-and-gold Chimay label I didn’t recognize. This, as it turned out, was Chimay Grande Réserve Barrel Aged, a new spin on an old classic, with a hefty $40 price tag. I’ve paid that kind of price for beer before: $45 for a bottle of New Belgium Twisted Spoke 15, $35 for a Jester King/Mikkeller Beer Geek Rodeo. That’s a lot for one bottle, but it’s usually been worth it. This one, I probably bought more out of curiosity and nostalgia than out of any expectation that it’d match those fairly extraordinary beers. Later, I picked up a regular bottle of Grande Réserve and a wedge of the Chimay cheese made by the the monastery to accompany it. I don’t care much for cheese, but lady snow’s been wanting to try it.
The original Chimay Grande Réserve pours somewhere between a murky dark brown and pure black with a fluffy, lightish tan head that sticks to the sides of the glass when I tip it. There’s very noticeable yeast sediment suspended in the beer, which is not a real beer problem despite my well-documented squeamishness about the phenomenon. Probably the one thing that makes Belgian beers among the most highly-regarded in the world is the incredible array of flavors they present, and as one of the very best Belgian beers, Chimay Grande Réserve presents a whole hell of a lot of them: The impressions I get are of chocolate, caramel, clove, green apple, pear, raisin, fresh wheat toast, graham cracker. I’ve said it before: I am a promiscuous beer drinker. Even so, I can’t deny that this is still the beer I fell in love with nine years ago.
So what happens when my beloved Grande Réserve gets barrel-aged? The answer may surprise you: Not much! Most of those flavors are still there, they’re just muted, rounded out, melded. I like that aspect of it, really. I had to do some digging to find out what sort of barrels this was aged in: some “second-use” French oak, some “second-use” American oak, some “new” cognac barrels (and I gather this means barrels that had cognac aged in them a short time before it was transferred to older barrels), and some “new” (probably actually fresh) chestnut barrels. That’s a potentially fascinating process that would be even more potentially fascinating if I believed that I could taste any of it. There’s maybe a touch of vanilla-oak influence in this beer, if you really look for it, but for me that’s as far as it goes. That’s a real disappointment to me, especially at this price. Tell me if I’m being unreasonable, but: If you’re putting out a new version of one of your beers, and you’re marking it up by nearly 300%, it seems to me it should be very, very distinguishable from—not even better than, just distinguishable from!—the original product. Grande Réserve Barrel Aged fails that test.
Let’s go to lady snow for a cheese report.
lady snow says: I can see why they made this cheese to go with this beer. It’s similar to Camembert, in that it’s creamy but also has a sort of bitter finish, WOULD YOU CUT IT OUT
Minnie the cat says: i want some!
lady snow says: Anyway, for this style of beer, bitterness is not a flavor that really sticks out for me. So this beer and this cheese really seem like they were meant to to complement each other. They each have what the other doesn’t When you eat the cheese and you drink the beer you get just a mouthful of creamy, cheesy, beery goodness. But, as with a lot of other cheeses like this, it smells awful. See?
make it snow says: Good God.
lady snow says: Yeah, but in a lot of cheeses like this, that’s considered desirable. For the record, I much prefer Brie to Camembert.
make it snow says: Now that you’ve offered some of it to Minnie she seems kind of hesitant about eating it.
lady snow says: Yeah, that was kind of the idea.
make it snow says: So I’d probably hate this?
lady snow says: You would definitely hate this. I think the only thing you’d like about it is the bitter finish. You want to try it?
make it snow says: The thought of trying it is making me physically uncomfortable. I haven’t asked you about the beer yet, though. The regular Grande Réserve first, please.
lady snow says: Definitely my kind of beer. It reminds me a lot of the doppelbocks that we’ve had. I’m definitely a fan of darker beers, and I like the mix of savory and sweet in this one. I’ve really liked just about every Belgian-style beer we’ve had together. I’m sorry, I’m not finding a lot to say about Grande Réserve on its own, it just tastes like the sort of beer that I would like, and that’s good.
make it snow says: Yeah, they’re not my favorite styles—I mean that literally, they’re not bad, they’re just not my —and they tend to be on the expensive side, so I don’t pick them up much. There’s no doubt, though, that Belgium makes some terrific beers, and this is one of the best. Now how about this Barrel Aged Grande Réserve?
lady snow says: It tastes boozier to me.
make it snow says: Really? I didn’t pick up much from the barrels at all.
lady snow says: Yeah, it doesn’t especially taste like whiskey or wine or anything. It just tastes boozier. There’s also a bit of soy sauce to it, which of course is fine and expected in an aged beer.
make it snow says: Yeah, I didn’t really get the soy sauce until you mentioned it, but it’s there, and I think it kind of adds to the savoriness of the beer. So, but, I’m disappointed with this one overall. For $40 I wanted something more transformative. This tastes like something I could have gotten by buying a Grande Réserve and letting it sit in the closet for two years.
lady snow says: Oh, yeah, $40? We’ve had way better than that for way less.
make it snow says: And how.
tl;dr: Purchasing advice: Buy the classic. Leave the gimmick on the shelf.
Grade: Chimay Grande Réserve, one Chimay Grande Réserve out of one. Chimay Grande Réserve Barrel Aged, one Chimay Grande Réserve out of three.
make it snow is an alot of beer who realized earlier this week how light he’s been on reviews of Belgian beers, some of the best and most widely accessible brews out there. He’s also a Northwestern alumnus and Broncos fan who’ll do some violence if he ever has to watch awful quarterback and management shill Trevor Siemian play meaningful minutes again. Since he didn’t get this posted last weekend, expect another Beer Barrel tomorrow!