Beer Review 0536: Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale

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‘Tis the season for all sorts of seasonal releases from Bell’s Brewery, located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Over the next couple of months (especially December), you’ll start to see a whole bunch more beers from Bell’s at your local bottle shop, because the cooler months are their peak release time.

The brewery has been producing beer since 1985, but the initial concept was a homebrew store. Well, any self respecting homebrew store will probably eventually start making its own ale; Bell’s started out brewing in 15 gallon soup kettles covered with Saran Wrap. Today, they’re one of the biggest craft brewers in the country, having just expanded to a second facility this year. They’re also one of the most respected breweries, and I rated one of their beers, Hopslam, a full 100 points on my rating scale.

Third Coast Old Ale is a high alcohol, malty beer that is released once each year. On the bottle label, Bell’s challenges you to save one of these and allow it cellar time, and at 10.2% ABV (alcohol by volume), it’s certainly built to stand the test of time. Classified as an Old Ale, this style of beer generally refers to English ales above 5% ABV; however, typical American takes on the style, such as this one, normally hit 9-11%.

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This beer pours a small, eggshell white head that is creamy but doesn’t stick around very long. The color is tawny brown out of light, and with a fairly cloudy body, looks like dirty water. But in light, Third Coast is a nice shade of reddish-brown, and is spot-on for the Old Ale style. There were no particles or sediment floating about, and lacing was minimal, only leaving behind a few sudsy small pieces of foam.

The nose is flat out amazing! Super thick and sweet caramel with backing toffee collide with brown sugar and dark fruits — figs and prunes. It’s very port-like, rich and decadent; the hops are at a minimum, only providing some general citrus notes and orange peel. The alcohol is present, but it adds to the warming scent, along with a dash of cinnamon. Impressive stuff.

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But the flavor doesn’t exactly hold up to the superb quality of the aroma. Boozy sweet caramel and toffee lead off again, but this time they hit a brick wall of hops; the hop presence here is fairly big, and issues up sugared grapefruit with some mild dark pine. The hops kind of weaken the malts, which makes this beer a little less intense than it ought to be, in my opinion. The dark fruits are shuffled to the back of the palate, and you get some fig before the finish comes on, surprisingly herbal and tea-like, riding a moderately bitter note of grapefruit while trying hard to return to the sweet caramel found at the start. The alcohol isn’t present in taste but you can absolutely feel it. Third Coast is full-bodied, with a medium, foamy mouthfeel.

While this beer had an extremely promising nose, the flavor did disappoint; however, I’m going to call this one a definite prime candidate for aging. My prediction is that after a 12-18 months, the hops will fade just right and prop up the malts instead of fighting with them, allowing this beer to truly shine for the style. Still, it’s an outstanding beer while fresh, but I think time is needed to allow this one to fully develop.

Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale, 90 points. Price: $2.99 US for one 12 oz. bottle.

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