Tuatara XI – Belgian Black Ale, 10.5% abv., (Wellington, NZ). $11/500ml bottle.
You can’t beat Wellington on a good day, they say, but you do need something to hunker down with and get you through the times when the southerly change comes in and it all goes to crap. So, in recognition of Wellington anniversary weekend I turned to the Tuatara XI which is technically described on the back of the black-writing-on-black-background label as a licorice black Belgian barley wine. It does the trick nicely.
It’s a limited release and seems a little unusual for Tuatara, which I tend to associate with mainly producing stubby-sized bottles of better-than-average but affordable types that remain pretty faithful to style. I’d had the XI before at Beervana, but while then I found it good it wasn’t outstanding and I moved on to other things. Now I wish I hadn’t waited so long to get back to it. Whether it’s aged in the bottle or I just got a particularly good one, if it reminds me of anything now it’s the 8-wired Batch 18 Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout – high praise but it’s that good – and at less than two thirds the price.
It pours jet black with a medium (at best) light tan, slightly creamy head that clears quickly, and there’s a sweet, sugary aroma that could be chocolate or molasses. I was expecting a roasty, licorice (from, like, actual licorice) taste to dominate and even overpower the rest, and that’s certainly there but it’s richer, sweeter and smoother than that with chocolate and something more complex and Belgiany that I can’t quite put my finger on in the mix as well. It leaves a malty, sweet finish with next to no acidity which, given it’s strength, surprised me, and with light but sufficient carbonation has a velvety smooth mouthfeel without being close to syrupy. It’s fair to say though there is a slight alcoholic sting towards the bottom of the glass.
I do like limited releases. To me it’s where brewers allow themselves the greatest freedom, and the more experimental sides of their nature come to the fore. In musical terms, to me it’s like a vanity album or side project. More often than not with artists taking a punt there’s disappointment all-round with the results (and at this point my condolences to anyone who paid good money to hear Insane Clown Posse and Jack White do Mozart’s Lech Mich Im Arsch…really though, what did you expect?) but sometimes it’s absolute gold. In keeping with the Wellington theme it was tempting to go with something local as a musical accompaniment but to capture the smoothness and depth, the underlying complexity and richness of this beer I’m going with the Black Key’s hip-hop collaboration album Blakroc.
Here’s why. Even having left their early minimalist blues-rock comfort zone way behind it was of course still a gamble for the Black Keys and their cohorts to mix rap and rock like this but for me it’s the seemingly effortless balance of this album that’s the most impressive. The massive rhythm sections, heavily processed guitars and synths and the vocals – the soul of Nicole Wray, the smoothness of Mos Def – all somehow add up to a huge sound that’s organic, coherent and interesting, a sound that’s unusual but still leaves the impression that this is the way it should be done if not all the time then a damn sight more often than it is. Not that I imagine it’s something just anyone could pull off. There’s a lot going on in a song like Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hootchie Coo) – fuzz bass, backward guitar, abrasive synth noise – and even if one thing was out of place (a slightly less disciplined drum line, say) you get the feeling it would all fall apart. It’s a neat trick to pull off something like that and a testament to what can be achieved if you’re talented and willing to devote yourself wholeheartedly to something a little outside the ordinary. I’d argue that makes it a pretty decent match for the Tuatara XI.
Verdict: I’m biased towards dark beers but this is the good stuff. An early bolter for favourite beer here, if you see it get it any way you can and ask questions later. 82/100.