Thoughts on aging beer like wine

Don’t you think the discovery of truly vintage beers at Burton-on-Trent – one of the world’s most famous brewing centers – is a bit more exciting than when some Califronia hikes found a few 50-year-old cans of Coors?

Here’s how beer authority Mark Dorber described what he tasted of the UK beers:

“It’s amazing that beers this antique can still taste so delicious. Established wisdom would say beers this old should taste of vinegar, damp rags and Marmite. Instead, many show flavors of raisins and sultanas, baked apple and honey. The oldest – “ the 1869 Ratcliff Ale” – is bright and luminous like an ancient Amontillado sherry and has a meaty character like smoked partridge with hints of molasses. It’s amazing it tastes this good after 137 years.”

Beer writer Rupert Ponsonby added: “Ripe, sweet an dclean nose like oloroso sherry, sweet and smoky. Great balance with Christmas pudding and honey/dried fruit. Also syrupy roast coffee.”

The discovery caused George Philliskirk, the chief executive of the Beer Academy, to add, “This shows a potential for vintage beers to be taken seriously. Some top restaurants have started providing beer lists. Perhaps they should start including vintage brews.”

How good an idea is it to begin comparing aging beer and aging wine?

We’ve got more “vintage” beer in our chest freezer/cellar than almost anybody you know, but I still have reason to pause. One of the great things about beer is that brewers consider it ready to drink when they release it to the public. A winemaker might tell you have to wait 10 years or more for that multi-hundred-dollar bottle of red to “open up” and be at its best. He wants his money and caring for it between now and then is your job.

That noted, despite how well almost everything about wine has been scrutinized a recent artcile in Decanter noted “no one fully understands the process of wine aging.” Less is understood about beer.

In the best of circumstances new flavors will emerge, greater complexity, perhaps more balance, and even what the wine types call structure (yet paradoxically also a beer where the parts become seemless). Many beers handle age well – mostly those with a solid malt backbone, but also those – particular some from Belgium – where yeast continues to work its magic in the bottle.

I’m not saying laying down beer iasn’t worth doing – witness our cellar – but there can be disappointments. Both Dorber and Pohsonby use the word sherry in describing Ratcliff Ale. A beer aged for a much shorter time may already evoke comparisons to sherry or madeira. Some drinkers find that pleasing and others don’t. It shouldn’t be compared to a wine “opening up” since the flavors result from oxidation, which generally means the malt character is breaking down.

The next stop is a beer you won’t enjoy drinking, heartbreaking when you know there was once a delightful beer in that bottle. A couple of years ago in Belgium I had a bottle of Duvel that was more than 30 years old. Not a good idea.

There’s much more to discuss on this subject, in part because many American brewers are making beers that will improve for years rather than months – though maybe not decades. However, I think it’s best to fiish this post with a cautionary tale.

Anchor Our Special Ale

Last week a few beer writers and employees at Anchor Brewing Co. gathered at the San Francisco brewery to taste vintages of Our Special Ale dating back to 1995. Bill Brand wrote in his blog that the 1996 OAS was the star of the tasting.

Just two months ago I had the same beer. Our friend Jeff Scott was generous enough to share vintages from 1994 through 2001 (we quit at eight, when good sense prevailed).

Here’s what Brand wrote about the 1996: “Oh, would I ever like to have a couple of dozen of these. A dark brown color, with a slight head of foam and a bit of a licorice, malty nose with perhaps a hint of a medicinal note from, I guess, the spice-hop combination. Taste was quite full and malty.”

My notes: “Rich, chocolate nose, some roast. Sourness wrecks the flavor, but looking beyond that spice (spruce, ginger?) adds complexity. Tobacco, chocolate, then dry finish.” Four of us split a bottle and we didn’t finish the beer. Something happened in that bottle that shouldn’t have and oxidation made it worse. Did it happen when the beer was a year old, three, five?

The 2000 vintage was the second favorite of the tasting at Anchor and – honest to goodness – after the 1997, 1998 and 1999 bottles were all spot on the 2000 we opened seemed a bit sour (we weren’t sure if it was age or the combination of alcohol and spices).

The 2000 could have been a matter of different people tasting the same thing in a different way. Still, a lesson learned.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on aging beer like wine

  1. Steve Beaumont December 12, 2006 at 1:31 pm #

    Fair enough, Stan, but I think what your story is missing is the thrill of not knowing what’s coming up when you open a bottle of aged beer, good or bad. Case in point was a Niagara Falls Eisbock from 1995 I opened the other day, after discovering it in my cellar, much to my surprise. I fully expected it to be in poor shape, having had bad experiences with vintages of this beer in years following about 1993, but it was surprisingly sweet, rich and more complex than it was when put down. Was it a great beer? No, but the surprise and excitement of finding it in admirable shape made up for any failings it might have had.

    Aging almost anything, from Fuller’s Vintage Ale to Cheval Blanc to Laphroaig, is a crap shoot, and to me, that’s a good part of what makes it so much fun.

  2. Stan Hieronymus December 12, 2006 at 5:01 pm #

    I’m a serial offender when it comes to stashing beer so I agree – though it still ticks me off when a let a beer go over the edge.

    There is no exact science. A ’95 Thomas Hardy might be totally disappointing and a ’92 TH (that we bought at a Quick Stop in Amarillo, Texas, in 1999) that’s been stored beside it will be great.

    So you’re right – I should have noted the joy of opening a greater bottle, and that it can still be satisfying when a bottle isn’t quite great.

    I’m not so sure, though, that I want to see too many “vintage” beers showing up on restaurant menus. Consumers may be disappointed, or worse, think they are supposed to be more for oxidized beer.