Monday, December 8, 2014

A fine brew grows better with age

Posted By on Mon, Dec 8, 2014 at 5:43 PM

We’ve all heard the idiom: “Like a fine wine, you grow better with age.” But what if I were to tell you that beer could be aged as well? No, I’m not off my meds, it’s true. You can have the same aging experience with certain beer styles, and achieve greater results in less time.

First off, don’t start looking at that leftover Miller Lite can in the back of the fridge with delusions of grandeur. Only certain beer styles will undergo a fascinating transformation; others will just get increasingly worse.

Why age beer, though? Well, think of it as an experiment in chemical composition over time. Or, if you prefer, just consider it a tasty and easy science experiment. It interests me to see how some existing tastes will fade away, only to let a new flavor profile emerge. For example, an alcohol-forward beer may see that booziness drop off and get replaced by molasses or caramel. Coffee notes may give way to brown sugar. Sherry aspects may suddenly appear out of the ether. Basically, I age beer to see how it changes over time, and if you’ve lost your sense of wonder then this practice just isn’t for you.

Before we get into the specific styles, let’s establish a few ground rules on cellar conditions. Beer has three natural enemies — heat, light and oxygen. So, by keeping your bottles in a cool, dark place, you’re ensuring they have the best conditions. At a former house, my crawlspace was a pleasant 50 degrees year-round, so that was my stash spot. Now, I have an out-of-the-way cabinet that serves as my “cellar,” so find a spot that works best for you. As this is for long-term storage, regular convenience shouldn’t be a factor (plus it keeps you from drinking things too soon). Store beer too cold, and you’ll slow the maturation process. Store the beer too hot, you’ll ruin them. Last important storage note: Keep your bottles upright. This will lessen the surface area exposure to oxygen and let any yeast settle to the bottom of the bottle.

Also, a quick definition for the word Vertical: In the aging world, it simply means a line-up of several years of the same beer. They’re crucial in helping you really identify the changes a beer has undergone as it ages, and they’re just simply fun to experience.

((Isn’t that a helpful way to differentiate three years of the same beer.
  • Jonathan Wells
  • ((Isn’t that a helpful way to differentiate three years of the same beer.

Now that we know the Where and How of cellaring beer, let’s talk about What beer styles age better. A handy rule of thumb: As alcohol is a natural preservative, the bigger the beer the better it will keep. Imperial Stouts and Barleywines are two of the usual styles to age due to their higher alcohol content. Hops are also a natural preservative, but don’t go run off to hide your Double IPAs just yet. Hops also have a half-life of one year, meaning 365 days from now, half their bitterness will have faded.

I’m not telling you to never age hoppy beers; I had great success with a three-year vertical of Bell’s Hopslam. The oldest of those sampled beers was completely and impressively different than the fresh version, and the middle of three was just boring. Just be prepared for your hops presence to fall right off and you’ll be fine.

Another subset of beers that traditionally age like champions: nearly anything that’s already spent time in a barrel. Remember oxygen being an enemy of beer? Wooden barrels are porous, and do allow trace oxygen to permeate and slightly influence the contained beer’s flavor. This oxidization becomes part of any barrel-aged beer’s flavor profile, not as a defect but more like a layer.

Wild Ales too benefit from extensive aging, but the results are more unpredictable (and quite exciting too!). Also, any beer with additives like spices or coffee will see flavors from those fade over time, so don’t expect massive cinnamon from four-year-old holiday ale. Lastly, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg on a beer to achieve top-tier results; high price does not ensure ageability. I’ve had exquisite aging results with off-the-shelf imperial stouts.

Some of the beers sampled at a recent vertical. One was old enough to vote.
  • Ford Craven, Cheers Charlotte Radio
  • Some of the beers sampled at a recent vertical. One was old enough to vote.

Just remember, aging beers is an adventure. You don’t have to wait a decade or more like with wines, either; you’ll find interesting results within just a few months, and even more yet as time goes on. Don’t be afraid to experiment; these guidelines I’ve written about aren’t stone-carved rules. Most importantly, adventures are meant to be shared, so grab a few friends and see where the vertical takes you!

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