Monday, January 31, 2005

Just don't try this with PBR

Beer and aging. This was the subject of a recent discussion prompted by the purchase of a four-pack of North Coast Brewing's Old Stock Ale. It's rare, to say the least, to pick up a pack of beer at your local grocery store with a label reading, "We suggest a year's cellaring to let the complex flavors develop, but the longer you wait, the greater the drinking enjoyment. " Certainly not appealing as Super Bowl fare, for sure, but not terribly surprising from a brewery that's brought us Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, PranQster Golden Style Belgian Ale, and Anniversary XVI.
Whereas something along the lines of a vintage beer tasting isn't what most people have in mind, it's still worth considering the value of aging robust beers with the aim of achieving unique taste profiles unattainable through standard brewing practice.
It seems the two major arenas for aging are with British barleywines and "old" ales, and high gravity Belgian ales. Beers like Fuller's Vintage Ale and O'Hanlon's Thomas Hardy's ale are prime candidates for "drink one now, save one for 2010" in that the heavy maltiness in these big British beers is initially offset by very high hopping rates - hence, a very bitter initial brew. Over time, though, hop bitterness fades, and the end result is something wholly other. Plum, sherry, port, and dark spice notes all crop up over time and take over what was once a much more one-dimensional taste profile.
Same goes for the Belgians, with one exception. High gravity Belgian ales tend to lean on the sweeter side, rather than trying to maintain that essentially British concept of sweet/bitter balance. Typically, it's the maturation of the esters produced by high-temperature fermentations and phenolic yeast strains, along with the use of spices and peculiar adjuncts which generate the mysterious flavor profiles of aged Belgian ales. Duvel's Laurent DeMuynck commented at the 2003 International Beer Festival in San Francisco on his fascination with seeing how a case of Brewery Ommegang's Three Philosophers Quadrupel which he had stashed under his desk after the first bottling was changing over the years, commenting spcifically on how the cherry profile from the blended lambic was receding into a whole new flavor that he couldn't quite explain.
Of course, I'm generalizing quite a bit here - not to mention just scratching the surface of the potentials of aging beer in the same way one would age wine. Given similar circumstances - cool, even temperature, dark, and moderately high humidity - there's no reason not to put some bottles away for a future tasting. Just be sure to keep some sort of log to see how they all compare in the end. Of course, you'll want to have something on hand to drink while you're waiting...


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