Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Aging Gracefully: The Art of Aging Beer

It is often said that good things take time. It's only a matter of time, or, time heals all wounds. Pick an idiom, any idiom, but the concept's the same: time changes things.

It is this very construct that turns mashed grapes into wine or mashed corn into bourbon. But what about when a product reaches its final destination, when those grapes have become shiraz and that corn is in a manhattan? For some spirits, like whisky and cognac, time stops once the bottle is sealed (a bottle of 10 year cognac doesn't become 20 year cognac because it sat collecting dust in your basement for a decade). Wine's a different story, of course, with many aficionados dedicating entire cellars for their extensive collections. 

But what about beer, you surely ask? Well, that gets a definitive "it depends." 

At first, it's kind of difficult to imagine bothering to age beer, considering the nature of a lot of the beer we drink. Much of the imagery associated with beer highlights how the powers that be (which include a silver-coated train barreling through snowy summits, apparently) work hard to get your beer to you fast. 
And that's because for many styles, including most lagers and the mass brewed junk, are pretty delicate brews; time is the enemy - at the moment it is canned or bottled it is, presumably, in its ideal state. 

From there, the more steps (and by proxy, time) it takes to get to you, the more likely the beer's quality and taste are to deteriorate. Any number of hurdles - drastic temperature changes, light exposure, improper handling, among others - can appear on this journey, all intent on ruining the brewmaster's vision and your beer experience. 

As any devout beer fan will tell you, old beer is a great way to ruin a good time. We've all been there - the wine drinking party host helpfully offers that there's "some leftover beer in the fridge," and you trudge over only to discover an open box of some brewery's Springtime offering - from last year. You sigh and begrudgingly pop it open, only to imbibe some nearly flavorless swill that barely constitutes being called a beer.  You then presumably sob quietly to yourself. 

So how do you know which beers are ready to age? A few simple questions will help you make it easy to weed out quite a few beers that simply aren't meant for aging. 

Is the ABV percentage less than 7 or 8%? 
If so, don't bother. A big part of what lets a beer stand up to time is its alcohol content. Beers with lower alcohol content are often meant to be enjoyed very cold and often very quickly. The fresher the beer the more vibrant the flavors. A notable exception to this is the traditional lambic, a style prized for its tart and sour flavor, but we'll get into that some other time. 

Is it a lager?
Again, if so, you don't typically need to bother. Lagers tend to be lighter and colder than their bold ale brothers, whose warm-fermenting yeast tend to sport fruity flavors, and the flavors associated with lagers are at their peak when they're first packaged. That is to say, lagers don't tend to sport flavors that will benefit from aging. This isn't an all encompassing rule, of course, but it's generally a pretty safe rule of thumb. 

Are hops the showcase? 
Does the beer promise to bitter your face off? Does the beer name some clever use of the word "hop" like "Hoptimum" or "Hoptimator"? If so, then you don't want to age it. Doing so would only ruin what the brewery was getting at - that is, keeping that hop intensity in the forefront. The first thing to go as a beer ages is the aroma and bitterness from the hops, so while taming the hops in some beers could be a benefit, that's not the intention of an Imperial IPA or similar style. 

In certain examples, breweries go out of their way to deter would-be cellarers from aging their beer, such as Knee Deep's Simtra, which sports a pretty clear disclaimer on its label.


An even more extreme example is Stone's Enjoy By series, a collection of beers that sport a very clear date by which you are expected to drink the beer (hence, "Enjoy By _____"). The beers arrive in very small batches, are kept cold, and quickly turn into a running of the hopheads, who anxiously dash into every specialty beer shop in site in hopes of scoring a bottle. I begrudgingly admit that it is incredibly tasty and worth scoring at least a taste if you can. 

Alright, I get it, let me age something, dammit.

Well, ok. If you haven't deduced it, let me help out: the beers worth aging tend to be higher-alcohol ales. Even better if they're "bottle-conditioned" - these "living beers" still have a lot going on in terms of their maturation, even after they leave the brewery. A cork is a pretty reliable indicator that a beer could stand up to some aging. A reliable variety is barleywine. Whatever you chose, keep the temperature as consistent as possible (around 50 degrees is ideal if you can swing it), and keep the beer on its side for prolonged aging (to prevent excess carbonization loss). 


Barleywine - A variety of beer that uses a massive amount of everything - hops and malts, to create an equally massive beer that tends to sport a high alcohol content and distinct sweetness and lends itself well to contemplative sipping. Traditional English barleywines are indistinguishable from old ales, a traditional type of beer brewed in October to stand up to the colder months and lack of beer ingredient harvests. American styles tend to be an homage to American brewing, making big use of malts and hops that you can only get here. Great for use in aging as the flavors change in very discernable ways. 


Bigfoot Barleywine 2011 and 2013
Sierra Nevada Brewery 
Chico, CA
9.6%, 4 pack
Served in Tulip Glass 

There are two ways to compare aged beers. One way is the old fashioned method - wait. Barleywines from "big" craft brews such as Bigfoot tend to be reliably available at your favorite beer spots, so buy a 4 pack and put a few bottles away for a year or two, then buy that year's batch. Or, do what I did, and luck out - I bought a 4 pack of 2013, and managed to find a single bottle of 2011 at a local specialty beer shop. Give it shot, you might get lucky. Otherwise, wait it out!

Bigfoot Barleywine: The siblings 


Randy Mosher, author of "Tasting Beer," claims that fresh Bigfoot is "a little overwhelming,"and he might have a point. Bigfoot has a great amount of absolutely everything. The aroma is distinctly hoppy, with just a touch of sweetness, which is a great hint at what's to come. The mouthfeel, though creamy, is intense and sparkling, and a sweet opening turns into a hop overload at the tail (the term "bittersweet" comes to mind). We're talking Imperial IPA levels of hop here, people, which I admit I was a bit surprised at. 

The generous bounds of everything in this beer are pretty clear and the packaging's warning - "a beast of a beer" - is pretty appropriate. Tasty, yes, but not particularly friendly or approachable. Enjoy carefully. 


Step back two years, however, and you have an entirely different beer and a terrific example of what time can do to a beer in a beneficial sense. The hops have been reeled in, which is particularly noticeable in the aroma - previously floral, they've subsided to a yeasty, almost savory sweetness. This is the case with the flavor as well, which has likewise mellowed, though it still features a bitter finish that sticks around. 

Rich is the appropriate word here, and it evokes many of the same senses that a steak might. That might not sound particularly delicious in a beer, but what's at play is fascinating, and a great example of what can happen with the ingredients are left to do their thing. I like this version infinitely more than its younger brother. It has matured, and calmed, and come into its own. 

By the way, in terms of aging beer, 2 years can be just the tip of the iceberg. Many age-friendly beers can be aged far longer, So, get started! Put a beer somewhere!