Backwoods Bastard is an interesting beer because it is actually Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, also from Founders, that is aged in oak bourbon barrels. Scotch Ales are one of my favorite styles of beer to drink and I will almost always order one when I see it on draft. A Scotch Ale, also known as a Wee Heavy, is a malty rich beer that is reminiscent of caramel. You can rightly describe this beer as being "chewy." It is similar to an English barleywine and is typically high in alcohol - the ABV range according to the BJCP Guidelines is between 6.5% and 10%.
Bigger beers like Scotch Ales can be aged for several years because their higher alcohol helps preserve the beer, slowing the aging process. Over time, any booziness or alcohol "heat" will fade and be replaced with sweeter notes. The beer may take on slightly different flavor characteristics as it ages, such as taking on sherry-like notes or becoming maltier as the hop bitterness fades (SN: You shouldn't be aging anything that's highly hopped. Hoppy beers are typically brewed with the intent that you will enjoy them very fresh while the hop characteristics are at their highest.)
One way of seeing how a beer can age with time is to do a vertical tasting. Like with wine, a vertical tasting is a tasting of several different vintages of a particular beer. For our vertical tasting, we chose a bottle each of Backwoods Bastard from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. We have a few baby verticals like these in our beer "cellar" (hallway closet), but this was the first time in a long time that we sat down with multiple vintages all at once. A few weeks ago, I had intended to do a 2010-2017 of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot barleywine, but could never quite bring myself to try an eight-beer vertical of a 9.6% ABV beer.
Because Tom and I were also about to take (me for the second time) the BJCP tasting exam, we decided to do a blind tasting of the four beers, take notes, and see if we could accurately name the vintage of each sample.
Out of my lineup, I picked out the first sample as being the newest - the 2016 - almost as soon as I smelled it. Although it smelled good, I could also smell the alcohol and the bourbon. Underneath the alcohol and bourbon, I could smell some cherries and caramel, but the booziness overwhelmed the aroma. The flavor had a high caramelly maltiness with some cherries and somewhat high bitterness, which was another clue that this beer wasn't very old - as I mentioned above, the hop bitterness fades quickly and Scotch Ales are supposed to have low bitterness. I got a lot of the alcohol and bourbon in the flavor, too, and the finish and aftertaste were both quite alcoholic. Overall, it was still a great beer, but with a little too much alcohol heat.
Although I mixed up the 2015 and 2014, I correctly identified them as being in the middle of the pack - that counts for something, right? Both samples still had some alcohol heat to them but not nearly as much as the first sample and quite a bit more than the last sample. With both samples, I got more of a bread crust note from the malt as well as the cherries and caramel I got with the first sample. I picked up some dried fruit notes in the 2014 sample, which could have been an indication that the 2014 sample was older.
In the 2014 sample, I also picked up some oxidation notes that I had not picked up in a beer before, although I knew what it was when I smelled it - benzaldehyde. Truth be told, I didn't remember exactly what it was called, but I knew it was an aldehyde and that it started with benz-. As it turns out, that's all I needed to know but for some reason was thinking there were more letters in there. Benzaldehyde is reminiscent of cherries and bitter almonds. If you've had or used imitation almond extract, then you've tasted benzaldehyde before because it is the flavoring agent for imitation almond extract. I also picked up some sherry-like notes in both samples.
I correctly identified the last sample as being the 2013 sample because it was the most mellow of all the samples. The aroma was highly caramel with bread and dried fruit notes and a low bourbon aroma. The flavor was very smooth, with almost no perceptible alcohol and very low bourbon notes. I even picked up an almost maraschino cherry-like note, which was interesting and unexpected. I'll have to do more research into what can cause a maraschino cherry flavor in beer (besides adding maraschino cherries). Unlike the first sample, this sample had a sweet malty finish that was smooth and clean.
This was the first time I had sat down with a vertical and really paid close attention to each sample and took notes on each one. If I were to do a vertical again, I highly recommend having your samples be as blind as possible. I've mentioned it elsewhere on the blog, but the way we do it is to have one of us pour the beers into pint different branded pint glasses and write down what beer went into what pint glass. Then the other person (who wasn't in the room when the beers were first poured) pours the beers into tasting glasses and writes down from which pint glass each sample came, again with the other person not in the room. Then we match the tasting glasses to the beers once we're finished with our evaluations and we've made our final determinations.
It was interesting to see how some of the aspects of the beer faded, like the alcohol and the bourbon, while other characteristics emerged, such as the cherries and dried fruit. The caramel maltiness was prevalent throughout, which is great - some of the aspects of the beer should change over time, but the style should always be discernible. Overall, I highly recommend Backwoods Bastard anytime, but if you can get your hands on one the is two or three years old, you're in for a real treat.