Several years ago, I read Microbrewed Adventures by traveling beer journalist Charlie Papazian, in which he went about Europe tasting beer in some of the most coveted places. I recall several occasions when he visited old European monasteries. There, monks led him to the dungeons and withdrew from the dusty shadows ale and mead bottled in the 19th century. According to Papazian, the relics were not bad. Some lacked bubbles, but the writer eulogized the 100-plus-year-old brews as the ultimate in "experience" beers.
It has since been one of my objectives in life to build my own formidable and abundant collection of wise old beers, and I have now accumulated both homebrews and commercial brands dating back to 2005. Come nightfall, the beer demons haunt me. They tell me that my brews are peaking and that I must open them now. I resist and tell myself that the beers in my closet will continue to improve for years, that I must endure the decades, and that the experience of someday drinking ancient homebrews will be a pinnacle of my life.
But recently I caved. I sampled one of my last 2006 homemade barleywines; it tasted like liquid cardboard. I've since learned that even most commercial labels cannot transcend time the way Papazian's experience had me believe. Consider Brown Shugga', Lagunitas Brewing Company's 9.9 percent ABV slugger, first concocted in 1997 with cane sugar after a barleywine recipe went haywire.
In late December, I enjoyed a private tasting of this beer with brewery co-captain Ron Lindenbusch. From the beer library behind the band stage, Lindenbusch pulled bottles of Brown Shugga' as old as five years. He prepared a vertical tasting so that we could observe in a snapshot glance how the product has changed with age.
As is the fashion in verticals, we started at the top, with the 2008 release. Brewed just two months prior, it tasted familiar, bright and bitter, malty, and alive with hops and a clear freshness. Though sweet and tasty as always, it was rather mundane. The '07 Shugga' was a dramatic departure. The aromatic hops were almost entirely gone along with the bitter bite, but the malt character was beginning to develop and deepen. The '06 vintage was still heavier, thicker, stickier, deeper with toffee, and delicious.
There was no 2005 available, so we tasted the '04 next. A dusty, slightly stale taste surfaced through the candy. The beer seemed past its prime, and the 2003 was even further gone. There was a trace of sourness and tartness—signs of oxidation—and the malty body had worn thin. Brown Shugga', we concluded, peaks at two years. Given its high level of alcohol, which is a preservative, I had expected much more.
But Mark Ruedrich, president and brewmaster at North Coast Brewing Company, explains that a beer needs more than just alcohol to live long and prosper. North Coast's Old Stock Ale, a heavy 11-plus percent ABV beer, has been in production since 2000, and a recent tasting of the original vintage was a "fabulous" experience, Ruedrich reports. But he says it's not just the alcohol that has given the beer its longevity; it's the expensive, complexly flavored Maris Otter barley in the Old Stock recipe.
"High alcohol is pretty obvious as a way of keeping a beer from getting worse," he says, "but we wanted a beer that actually would improve, and using this malt creates an environment in which this beer actually gets better over time."
Only with several years does the full potential and marvelous complexity of the Old Stock begin to arrive, Ruedrich says, and the beer may be well worth stashing away.
Avery Brewing Company in Colorado brews several unusually strong beers. One, the 16 percent ABV Mephistopheles Stout, has been in production for only three years, but company brewmaster Adam Avery believes the first vintage will still hold its form for at least another decade. With bottles stashed away in the brewery library, time will tell. Meanwhile, Avery's Hog Heaven barleywine has been in production for a decade, and the company recently held a 10-year vertical tasting. Though Avery says he prefers this big beer when it's "super fresh and reeking of ganja," guests at the tasting found the 10-year-old to be "spectacular," and the majority, Avery says, favored the five-year-old.
Dogfish Head in Delaware strongly promotes the cellaring of its beers, some of which run 18 to 20 percent ABV and are meant to be aged for spectacular lengths or time.
"In our experience, research and opinion, we're confident that Dogfish Head beers over 10 percent alcohol will improve with age, potentially for decades," owner, brewer and founder Sam Calagione wrote to the Bohemian in an email.
Some brewers, on the other hand, don't vouch for old beer. At Moylan's in Novato, brewer Denise Jones believes the best beers are those served fresh, straight across the bar when the brewer decides that they're ready, usually soon after conditioning. Jones prefers her Old Blarney barleywine, for example, at just three to six months of age.
Lagunitas founder Tony Magee has said in previous conversations that most barleywines improve for a year or two, but beyond that point they "just get interesting." The late and revered beer critic Michael Jackson wrote in 1995 that 99 out of 100 beers will decline with age, but that Lee's Harvest Ale is one that improves markedly over time, peaking, he said, at about seven years before it becomes overwhelmed by Madeira notes.
The integrity of a brewery's equipment and how completely the beer is protected from oxygen exposure after fermentation and before bottling will affect how long the beer lasts in the cellar, experts say. Lagunitas replaced its bottling line machinery in 2005 with an improved system, and Lindenbusch wonders whether the Brown Shugga' made on the new equipment will live longer than two or three years.
How beer should be enjoyed is strongly a matter of preference. Drinking 50-year-old homebrew will likely be disappointing, though well-made beers can doubtless remain drinkable for decades. Such old specimens will likely have lost their bitter edge, bright freshness and youthful luster by the time their day comes. For beer intellectuals, such an evolved beer can be rewarding—an "experience beer"—if not an ideal after-work refreshment. For others, however, there is nothing like a beer fresh and alive from the brewpub, and for these men and women, a beer without hops, without body and without bite is nothing but a beer gone bad.
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