A Beer for the Ageing
The inner-circle of beer geeks is moving beyond anything on offer in stores to brews less easily acquired, and more rare. They’re learning, like the most dedicated oenophile, that patience is a virtue.
Originally published in Culture11.com, September 23, 2008
We’ve come a long way from the beers of our fathers and grandfathers. The corner store, which no longer stocks Ballentines or Schlitz, may well carry porters, microbrews, and fruit-infused beers.
But the inner-circle of beer geeks is moving beyond anything on offer in stores to brews less easily acquired, and more rare. They’re learning, like the most dedicated oenophile, that patience is a virtue. They’re aging their beer.
For most, it was a discovery due to forgetfulness. Michael Legue, manager of Best Cellars wine store in Manhattan, bought a case of Samuel Adams Triple Bock in 1996 on whim. The bottles ranged in years from 1994 to 1996. Eleven years later, after moving apartments, he found them, drank one and didn’t gag. Now he cracks one open every so often to track how they’re aging. This is how bottle-agers are born: Buy a case. Store it away. Find it years later. Love what you find.
Before you search your garage refrigerator, though, take note: these aren’t cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Bud Light. Beers that are simple, light, and low in alcohol won’t do for aging. A can of Heineken left in the closet for a year isn’t unlike drinking dirty mineral water. If time is to produce a delicious transformation, rather than a flat, stale, bread-like swill, it needs something with which it can work: high alcohol, yeast, sugar, hops, or tannins.
Even in a pasteurized beer, these elements assure that there will be a ton of activity over time – acids breaking down, oxidation, reactions between ethanol and organic compounds. The Belgians have been aging beer like this for years, but the reactions I’ve described result in flavors that are mostly new to the American palate. And stateside beer connoisseurs are catching on.
Take barley wine. Despite the label, it’s just as much a beer as that pint of IPA you had at the bar last week, except that the alcohol content ranges from 8 to 12 percent, about as high as your typical Cabernet. Since it is made of grain, not fruit, it can still be considered an ale or beer. Along with being high in alcohol, barley wines are usually very hoppy, which causes them to be a bit bitter, but only at first. These beers are made to be aged.
Over the years the hops will mellow and the alcohol will break down into softer sugars, leaving you with a tasty, slightly bitter but much more honeyed version of the drink you started with. A double IPA will also age well due to many of the same qualities: high alcohol, usually over 7%, strong hops, but a maltier character than their brother the barley wine.
Cask-aged ales are a third beer suited for aging. They can improve over time thanks to the tannins extracted from the barrels they were first aged in. Usually cask aging takes place for only a year or so, but bottle aging can last as long as you’re willing to gamble—and gambling is what this hobby is all about. Bierkraft, a beer store in Brooklyn, New York, is a mecca of all things beer. According to their knowledgeable employees, there are no real documents or guides to refer to when trying to figure out how long to set down a beer. The science, hobby, perversion, whatever you want to call it, is currently too young to be anything more than mere experimentation.
Some people are starting blogs just to track how their beers are aging in order to help out the beer geek community. On one such blog, The Brew Basement, the author, simply identified as Jason, explains that after discovering the wonders of bottle aging beer, much in the same manner as Legue, he spent the next few weeks prowling around on the Internet. “I did come across some basic info and advice about cellaring beers, but I was very disappointed in the depth of information available on the topic,” he writes. “Different articles often ended up contradicting each other. This just wouldn’t do. This was going to be up to me.”
Justin Philips, owner of Beer Table, a restaurant and bar in Brooklyn known for its pairings of unique beer and cheese, talks excitedly about the possibilities of new flavors that come with aging. “Beers change over time and become something unexpected and improved,” he says.
Phillips and his wife stock their bar with many aged beers, some of which they’ve bought already aged, and others that they’ve laid down themselves.
His oldest is a 1998 J.W.Lees Harvest, a well-known but rare barley wine, which is brewed once a year to celebrate the first brew of the season. He describes its young state as “super honeyed, rich, and thick. Floral, vibrant, essentially straight honey with booze.” After ten years of aging (it can still stand to be aged more), it tastes “earthy, nutty, oxidized—but not oxidized in a wasted sense.”
Curious, I bought some bottles from Bierkraft to test out: a De Dolle Brouwers Special Oerbier Reserva 2006, a retired Belgian cask aged ale, a J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2006 and, for comparison, the same beer issued in 2000. The J.W. Lees 2006 was sweet and honeyed, just as Philips described. The 2000 tasted dramatically different; it had mellowed in sweetness, but maintained bitterness on the end. The Belgian Oerbier was a different story. It was pungently citrusy, slightly bitter, mildly fizzy, and oddly addictive. As I drained the bottle eagerly into my glass I experienced what one feels at the end of a particularly good Christmas: So good, but so gone.
Tony Magee, owner of the rebellious Lagunitas Brewing out in Petalum, California, is another avid beer collector. (He even went as far as digging a hole in his living room floor to attempt to create a cellar.) Magee enthusiastically discusses the flavors that can be attained from aging beer: peach, sherry, citrus. And while he’s a stickler for correct aging – between 40 and 50 degrees, no sunlight or movement – he is very down to earth about what follows.
“You can drink the aged beers in place of port or an aperitif. But you can only be so pretentious about beer,” he says. “You can have one after mowing the lawn on a Sunday.” Some people may push aging beer in an attempt to “equate beer with wine,” he offers, “but also it’s a way to get you to buy more beer than you’re drinking.” Clever marketing or not, however, the benefits of aging are obvious – it’s exciting, it’s different, and, at its core, it produces tasty beer.