This past weekend my good friend Todd hosted a fellow beer lover who was visiting from my home state of Wisconsin, resulting in a truly epic series of bottle shares. As is often the case when visiting Todd’s garage, I not only got to try a staggering array of new brews, but also wound up bringing a couple treats home. Beer, at least when one has generous friends, has a way of procreating.
If only procreation were so simple for the fair youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets – perhaps then Shakespeare wouldn’t have needed to devote the first 17 poems in his sequence to the topic. As two of the beers I just received are essentially mirror twins, I decided to review them side-by-side and pair the pair with a pair of poems. The first of these, Sonnet 3, has imagery that is particularly well-suited to drinking such closely related beers:
In modern spelling:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair, if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime,
So that through windows of thine age shalt see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.
The “glass” Shakespeare refers to in the opening line refers to a mirror, of course, but let’s go ahead and look in my glass(es):
When you look in a mirror, you never precisely see yourself as others do. Most obviously the object and image are horizontally flipped, but beyond that are the more nuanced distancing effects of light, shadow, angle, and – perhaps most importantly – subjectivity. A mirror, thus, functions as an excellent metaphor for the passing on of familial traits. No parent and child ever look like twins in the moment, but because of the subjective filter through which we remember ourselves – the “windows of [our] age” – it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a father seeing himself in a strapping son, or – as Sonnet 3 demands we do, in a startling twist on expectations that sets in motion a theme that we’ll be seeing much more of in future sonnets – a mother seeing herself in a beautiful son.
The androgyny is made doubly disturbing, I think, due to the poem’s concurrent overtones of sexual narcissism – the opening image of looking at his own reflection immediately brings this Ovidian theme to mind, and the explicit reference to “self-love” keeps it going through the second quatrain. We’re asked to imagine a youth so in love with his own image that he holds discourse (intercourse?) with it in the mirror, but who is then asked to imagine this image as being effectively identical with both his mother and his son. The only person involved whose visage does not meet this standard of beauty is the functionally necessary wife – her attractiveness never enters into consideration: just her fertility, metaphorically described as a field ripe for “tillage.” Now that’s romantic!
If anything, Sonnet 4 is even less romantic, as the logic urging procreation exchanges mirrors and fields for money. The one clear link between the two is self-love, but in Sonnet 4 the mythological overtones of Narcissus are replaced with more explicitly masturbatory imagery, linked with the economic through the verb “spend”:
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largesse given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self doth deceive;
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which uséd lives th’exectutor to be.
Rich with wordplay but difficult at times for modern readers to decipher, Sonnet 4 casts the obligation to procreate as a financial obligation. Inspired largely by the conflation of property and family commonplace in Shakespeare’s day – e.g. the House of Tudor – the poem imagines the challenge of managing an estate’s finances as an analogue for fathering offspring.
While the extended monetary metaphors can be dense, I love this sonnet’s combination of concrete diction and occasional overabundance of almost-repetition: “sum of sums,” “beauteous/bounteous,” “unused/uséd,” and of course the line “Thou of thyself thy sweet self doth deceive.” This last line, clearly evoking “Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel” from Sonnet 1, emblematizes the sonnet’s recurring focus on verbal self-reflection that, in turn, evokes the mirror theme of Sonnet 3. It isn’t “sum of sum,” but “sums”; not “beauteous/beauteous” but “bounteous.” The reflection is always implied but never quite exact, just as the images in the mirror are never quite of the true self.
This slippage between seemingly identical objects brings me (finally!) to my twin libations: two Central Waters Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ales, one from 2016 and the other from 2015. I’ve long been a fan of the various barrel aged offerings from this central Wisconsin brewery, and the BBA Scotch Ale is the only one of their seasonals that I had yet to taste.
Comparing different vintages of the same beer in a vertical tasting is, I think, a lot like the idea Shakespeare describes of seeing a family member in a looking glass. So much about these beers is the same, and yet each has a distinct individual personality that throws their resemblance into ever sharper relief. I’ve been most pleased to find that these two particular beers provide a wonderful example of how illustrative vertical tastings can be: both are delightful, both are built on a common core of central flavors, and yet the difference between them is notable on every step of the sensory process. One of the frustrating but fascinating things about verticals is trying to figure out where these differences come from. Did the recipe change? Did the extra year of cellaring cause the older one to mature into something new? Were they stored differently, in barrel and/or bottle? It’s impossible to tell for sure, but, like when interpreting literature, endlessly enjoyable to develop hypotheses.
My reviews, with scores for the 2015 preceding the 2016:
A: As soon as begin pouring the bottles simultaneously into identically shaped tulip glasses, I notice that the 2015 is clearly a shade or two darker than the 2016. The former is a deep mahogany color that appears nearly black unless held up to light. The latter is a clear chestnut hue and glows with garnet highlights when illuminated. The 2016, as you can see in the picture above, has considerably more carbonation (again, the pours were identical), developing a nice inch of frothy tan head. Both demonstrate good head retention for their strength, and I’d call both decidedly attractive. 4.0/4.25
S: The difference here is more noticeable still, with the 2015 delivering a much sweeter, more barrel-forward aroma of caramel, vanilla, bourbon, smoke, and chocolate-covered raisins. The 2016 is both more restrained and more complex, with the oak and caramel notes taking a backseat to an array of dark fruits and spices: plum, raisin, anise, and – as it warms – a fascinating black cherry undertone. The 2015 is much more what I was expecting, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily better. I love them both. 4.5/4.5
T: The 2015 is rich, sweet, and lightly smoky. Lots of caramel and chocolate up front, followed by vanilla, raisins, and oak on the mid-palate. The finish is fruitier and ultimately a bit dryer as the oak continues to assert itself on the long, bourbon-tinged aftertaste. Fairly simple and thoroughly delicious. The 2016, as the nose suggested, displays a much fruitier array of flavors – almost to the extent of reminding me of a Belgian Quadrupel. Bourbon is the first flavor out of the gate, but quickly gives way to prune, plum, raisin, and cherry. Some dark chocolate and spice show up toward the finish, which ushers in a wave of dry, almost bitter oakiness. Mild alcohol and sawdust on the finish. Fascinating but not as satisfying as the 2015. 4.5/3. 75
M: Very similar here, with both exhibiting smooth medium bodies with very low carbonation. A bit more heft and liveliness would help both of them, particularly the 2016. 3.25/3.25
O: Both are great beers, and splendid examples of the Scotch Ale style and its complex, malt-forward character. I definitely preferred the older bottle, although I really don’t think that the 2016 with a year on it will be remotely the same as the 2015 is now. Barrel character typically fades with age, and the 2015 surprisingly showed far more of it tonight.What was a real treat was the cuvée I made blending the last couple ounces of each, which managed to imbue the caramelized richness of the older beer with some of the fruity complexity of the younger one. Perhaps that’s what the 2017 release will taste like, and I just hope I get the chance to find out! 4.25/4.0
Thanks again to my friends for supplying these beers, and thanks to everyone who read this far. Cheers!