When Unibroue first released the beer that would ultimately become Grand Reserve 17 back in 2007, beer connoisseurs, citing the brew’s complexity and aging potential, fought tooth and nail to get a taste of the Belgian-style dark ale, which also happens to pair well with a premium cigar.
Responding to this demand, Unibroue opted to increase production of 17 (albeit keep it a limited-edition brew) for 2012 and designated it a Grand Reserve, a brewery first. The old, but new, Grand Reserve 17 began shipping to retailers in the United States a few weeks ago and will continue to be rolled out in the next couple of months.
But what does Grand Reserve mean?
“Grand Reserve is there to tell people that the liquid could improve with aging,” said Jerry Vietz, Unibroue’s master brewer.
Yes, like fine wine, you can deliberately cellar fine beer to bring out its full flavor potential—and Grand Reserve, like almost all the beers from Unibroue, is a perfect candidate.
“As the liquid ages, the hoppy flavor will gradually fade away, but not disappear, and more of the spices will take over,” explains Vietz. “Also, more of the fruits will come out. It will become more of a whole, balanced beer.” Additionally, Vietz says the “hot,” alcohol bite of Grand Reserve, a sign of its youth, will smooth out over time.
The aging potential of Grand Reserve is the reason brewheads are willing to shell out so much money for it. The beer has all the components that beer connoisseurs look for in an aged beer: it is a darker beer, it has a high alcohol content and, while it has a high level of hop bitterness, it’s aromatically more malt-forward. Because it’s bottle conditioned, and thus, better protected from oxidation, Grand Reserve can be cellared for up to eight years.
While Vietz would not go into great detail about Grand Reserve’s recipe, he says it’s brewed with American and Noble hops and uses a blend of malts that includes chocolate. To add a toasty vanilla and oak character to the liquid, Vietz says he abstained from traditional barrels and instead submerged oak spirals (long pieces of wood that resemble an Archimides screw) into the beer tanks. Whereas oak barrels need six to eight months to work, the spirals have a larger surface area so the infusion process takes only six to eight weeks to complete.
Vietz says the beer was first brewed in 2007 to celebrate the brewery’s 17th anniversary and was meant to be a one-time only project, released in very limited quantities to friends and families of the brewery as well as the good people of Quebec, where the brewery is located.
(Tasting notes and cigar pairing on next page)
Soon, though, bottles of 17 (as it was known then) began to make their way to brewheads across North America via trades and eBay, in some cases selling for as high as $180 per bottle. The secret was officially out when 17 began to rack up a slew of medals and awards, including being named World’s Best Dark Ale by The World Beer Awards.
According to Bernard Johnson, regional sales manager for Unibroue, 90,000 bottles of Grand Reserve 17 are going to be made available in the U.S.
While Unibroue, a small brewery known for producing some of the world’s finest Belgian-style ales outside of Belgium, is available in 46 states, you can bet that this beer will be snatched up in a hurry.
if you are one of the lucky few to find it, try and grab a couple
bottles. One to enjoy now and one to rest, preferably somewhere between
46 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Unibroue Grand Reserve 17 (10 percent alcohol by volume, $12.99 for 750-ml bottle)
APPEARANCE: Pours an opaque caramel with a craggy, beige head that remains until the very last drop.
AROMA: Roasted-malt notes hit the nose first followed by an elaborate, boozy bouquet of figs, pomegranate and apricots with traces of grapefruit and vanilla.
PALATE: A hot, complex beer from start to finish, the liquid begins with grapefruit hop and allspice notes before giving way to a cocoa, fig and caramel midpoint until a wonderfully toasty vanilla and honey finish that lingers in the mouth until the next sip. There’s a certain meaty, leathery element to the beer’s mouthfeel.
CIGAR PAIRING: The malty finish of this beer begs to be paired with cigar smoke, and its high alcohol content means you can go big with a medium- to full-bodied stick. We tested this with the bold La Flor Dominicana’s Cameroon Chisel and the milder Viaje White Label St. Patrick’s, a candela cigar.
The sweetness of the Chisel and its slight spice gave the beer’s cocoa and caramel flavors a nice kick. The Chisel’s leathery mouthfeel also danced well with the brew. The Viaja fared well in this pairing, too, as it brought out the liquid’s toasty oak and rounded the vanilla component into a pleasant, buttery taste.