It often surprises people when they learn that beer can be cellared and aged, the same way you do fine wine. As usual, I blame the megabreweries for portraying beer as being nothing more than cold yellow and fizzy.True, you wouldn't want to cellar or age anything cold, yellow or fizzy. But there are beers out there that will improve with age, some even developing for decades.
As I've recently learned, for a beer to be cellared for a decent amount of time it will need three charactaristics.
1. A big body
As beers age the body thins out, so you need a beer that has plenty of fat to trim away. High alcohol is a good indicator of a cellarable beer.
2. Malt driven
While some beers have high alcohol and big body, not all are suitable to age. In addition to these things the beer must be malt accented, rather than hop accented. This is because hop flavours rapidly dissapear and change, while malt flavours will develop favourably.
3. It's Alive!
A beer might follow the above two rules, but without our friend saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) it will simply oxidise.
Yeast helps develop the flavours in the beer. It will consume residual sugars, making the beer less sweet (strong beers have high amounts of residual sugars). It will also consume any oxygen making its way into the bottle over the years, limiting the amount of oxidation.
Another thing yeast provides is 'Autolysis'. Essentially this is when the yeast cell dies, and it releases chemicals which cause a marmitey flavour.
Recently my boss at Hashigo Zake held a vintage beer tasting for his birthday.
Dominic has been cellaring fine ales for longer than I've known about beer, holding on to beers from breweries no longer in existance.
This was a rare opportunity to see how beers that follow the above rules - and some that dont - last the test of time.
I took brief notes about each beer.
First up was an offering from our neighbours across the Tasman.
Coopers Vintage Ale
Two vintages were provided.
2006: Caramel sweet nose, vanilla. Spicey, still some body, dry finish. 11/20
2002: Tame nose, not much there besides some sweet malt. Very thin bodied, spice. 8/20
Next, a retired beer from Emersons of Dunedin
Emersons Whiskey Porter
2002 vintage: Nice nose with smokey whiskey notes. Subtle whiskey notes in the flavour, hint of coffee. Still a good body to this one. 13/20
Now a beer from Limburg, a brewery that went out of business just as I was discovering good beer!
1999 vintage: Aroma of christmas cake, quite strong caramel. A good fruityness but the banana esters have gone, more raisiny chirstmas cake. Dry finish. Nice and complex, good body. 12/20
Traquair House Ale
1998 vintage: Sweet aroma, raisins, bit of brown sugar. Good body, whiskey notes. A bit of autolysis, which works. 13/20
This next one is American and isn't really aged yet, but it would cellar nicely.
Lost Abbey Judgement Day
2009 vinatage: Good to compare a fresh one to the rest, this quadrupel had alcohol and bananas on the nose. A big alcohol body with banana and raisins, very warm in the mouth. Almost a weizenbock. 14/20
Kieran Hasslett-Moore of homebrew/regional wines fame provided a bottle of his Imperial Stout next.
O Street Brewery Merchant of the Devil
2008 vintage: Pours like tar. Massive roast malt, dark fruit and smoke in the aroma and flavour. Awesome. 17/20
Another imperial stout was next, but a commercial release from America.
Victory Storm King Imperial Stout
2009 vintage: Pours black, red edges. Citrus hop aroma, mingling with huge roast malt. Big roasty toasty flavour. Warm, big dark fruits and bitterness with a roasty sweet finish. 15/20
Next was a Belgian from Canadia.
Vintage ?: Tropical fruit nose, candy sweet. A funny musty flavour, kind of chemically. Finish is abrupt and sweet. 7/20
Following this one is a beer that violates rule 2, in that it is a hop accented beer.
2001 vintage: Sweet nose, clovey. Sugary flavour, bit of herb on a thin body. An interesting experiment highlighting the need for malt accented beer. 7/20
Another tripel followed, but of famous origin.
Chimay Cinq Cents
2002 vintage: The aroma seems to have gone away, flavour is clovey with a nice Belgian yeast character, dry alcohol. 10/20
Two very exciting beers followed, from Chimay, the
Chimay Grande Reserve
Vintage 2002: Nice aroma, musty raisins. Musty raisin flavour too, otherwise a bit clean. 10/20
Vintage 2000: Musty nose, earthy raisins. Flavour is sweet and deep. The raisins are there, almost port like. A full body, complex and well aged. 16/20
A second offering from Traquair had a tough act to follow.
Traquair Old Jacobite
1998 vintage: Nice coriander, cinnamon nose. Musty, fruity flavours of spiced raisins. Nicely Aged 14/20
We were getting into Barley Wines next, so Kieran got out his homebrewed one, a young 2009 vintage.
Alfred's Audit Ale
2009 vintage: Very hoppy, marmalade like. Full of orange peel hops but very sweet and harsh still. Will age well though. 8/20
Following the fresh Barleywine, was a 5 year old offering from the defunct Limburg brewery. Exciting!!
Limburg Oude Reserve
2004 vintage: Big orange peel aroma with a slight mustyness. A bit of burnt brown sugar. The hops hit initially, with big oranges, brown sugar malt follows. Complex, well balanced, wonderful. 18/20
The big gun, Thomas Hardy's Ale followed the NZ Barley Wine. I love TH's and have many in my personal cellar going back to 1988, but that's for a different blog....
Thomas Hardy's Ale
Vintage 2008: The final vintage from O'Hanlons had a faint nose, sweet flavour and big dry alcohol. Needs time. 9/20
Vintage 2006: Big raisiny nose, marmite, brown sugar. This is what I love about TH. The flavour has a fair amount of autolysis which works in its favour, warm, still a bit harsh. 12/20
Vintage 1999: The final vintage brewed by Eldridge Pope, I was pissing myself with excitement. However, I was let down. A big musty nose was promising, but the nose was all sugar and alcohol. The flavour was sweet and sticky like golden syrup, and dominates everything. It turns out Eldridge Pope contracted the last few brews of TH out, where the recipe was murdered with pilsener malt and lager yeast - and it shows here.
For a big finale we went to the bar's sample of the world's strongest beer:
Samuel Adam's Utopias
Vintage ?: Burns the nose with alcohol, port like fruit, maple syrup, chocolate. The flavour is massive, sweet and hot. Raisiny fruit and oak come through. Syrupy, with a nice chocolate thing going on. 16/20
That marked the end of the beers, but following the super strong Utopias Dominic kindly allowed us all a sample of Hashigo Zake's 'Bier Likor' from Eisenbahn in Brazil.
Bier Likor isn't beer, as it has been distilled, but it is quite novel.
At 30% this is a hard hitter, but it actually tastes like vanilla essence. Interesting, but nothing more than a novelty, or for use in cocktails.
It was an epic night, ending early in the morning. And for my first foray into the world of aging beer, it was an educational and eye opening experience.