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Monday, December 29, 2008

Talking Head: What's in Your Cellar?

click to enlarge BEST CELLAR: Adrian Dingle checks his cellar inventory
  • BEST CELLAR: Adrian Dingle checks his cellar inventory

I suppose we all mellow with age, and it is no different for beer. While the value of aging wine and spirits has long been recognized, typical pale lagers are meant to be served fresh (as Budweiser will no doubt tell you), so most people never consider the possibilities of cellaring beer. However, with an increasing number of breweries producing high-alcohol beers, spiced seasonals and kitchen-sink anniversary ales, the opportunities are everywhere to sock some beers away for a year or two to mellow out the alcohol hotness, take some of the bite out of any harsh hop bitterness, and allow the complex flavors to comingle.

In general, the best beers for aging are relatively high in alcohol (6% ABV or more) and full-flavored, with plenty of malt complexity to hold up over time. The most commonly cellared styles are barleywines, stouts and imperial stouts, old ales, strong ales, winter warmers and other spiced ales, and strong Belgian ales. Bottle-conditioned ales are good candidates, since the yeast remains in the bottle, keeping the fermentation process alive. Hop flavors fade with age, so many experts consider it an affront to hop-heavy beers like IPAs to age away the hoppiness that the brewer worked so hard to put in the beer. However, the results can be quite revelatory and well worth the effort, especially for palate-challenging Double IPAs.

Ideally, beer should be cellared at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Your regular food refrigerator is too cold and would inhibit maturation. Consider a second refrigerator or wine cooler that can be set to cellar temperature. If that is prohibitive, simply find the coolest, darkest, quietest part of your house and stick your beers in there. A closet in a downstairs room or a corner of a dark basement are best. Although the temperature is likely to be well above 60 degrees there, it will be sufficient if the beers are protected from light, extreme temperature changes, and excessive handling.

Rather than simply buying a beer and putting it in the cellar to try at some undetermined date, it is more rewarding and informative to buy several bottles and start a vertical. A vertical is consecutive years of an annual release. Taste the current vintage and take some notes, then put away the rest. After a year, you can sample this year’s version with a year-old vintage and compare the two, as well as compare the current version to your notes from the year before.

Adrian Dingle of Villa Rica, a British ex-pat who is as passionate about beer as he is about English Premiere League Football, has about 400 bottles in his cellar, which is nothing fancier than some utilitarian shelves in a corner of his basement. “It’s underground on three sides, so it maintains a cool, stable environment, even in our difficult climate,” he says. Dingle began collecting beers for his cellar around 2002, when he started some verticals of classic American seasonals like Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Anchor Christmas, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, and Sam Adams Double Bock.

“Aging is always a good thing for me to try because I favor the malt end of the spectrum more than the hops,” Dingle says. “The effects of the hop fading [is that] even of you don’t have much malt, it’s going to come to the fore anyway. Also, if you get some oxidation, you can get some sherry flavors.” In terms of beers that benefit from toning down the alcohol, he cites Rogue Old Crustacean barleywine as a classic example. “I think that fresh it is almost undrinkable. But I have some bottles from ’03 and ’04 that are beginning to mellow to a certain extent.”

Not all of the beers Dingle cellars are ones that he feels need the benefits of aging. Brooklyn Monster Ale and Fuller’s Vintage Ale suit him just fine fresh, but he enjoys aging them just “out of curiosity.” At least one he began aging purely by accident, and it is an unlikely candidate, Sam Adams Octoberfest, a medium-bodied lager with less than 6 percent alcohol. “I found a 6-pack in the bottom of a box in the basement, and I thought it was really nice, so now I regularly buy a 6-pack each year and drink two or three of them and put two or three in the cellar.”

That’s the beauty of the relatively loose and wild world of beer cellaring. There are few rules as to what should be cellared and varied opinions on whether the result is better or worse than the original. “The whole thing is fraught with non-science,” Dingle says. “It is so hit and miss, and also you throw in the subjective palate and it is difficult to get any consensus.”

To get a sense of the changes that cellaring can introduce, I sampled 2007 and 2008 vintages of two beers, the Anchor Our Special Ale (aka, Anchor Christmas), a favorite for vertical tastings, and North Coast’s Old Stock, a traditional English old ale brewed with English malts and hops.

In both cases, the differences were clearly evident. The current vintages had better clarity and showed more active carbonation, as well as a more bitter finish and edgier taste overall. The Anchor Christmas has a different recipe each year, so direct comparison is not possible, but many elements are repeated each year. In the 2008 version, the caramel malts were quickly pushed aside by a sharp, piney hop bite and grapefruit zest bitterness. Mulling spice notes and dark fruit, along with the lively carbonation suggested cherry cola, but with a flinty finish. The 2007 vintage had more chocolate and orange aromas and a mellower spice profile of cinnamon and nutmeg. The malts showed more brown sugar and toffee presence, along with some cranberry and orange tanginess. Overall, the aged version had a smoother character and less astringent finish.

The 2008 Old Stock had a boozy aroma of brandied cherries and orange chocolate, a bourbon-like malt flavor, some port wine sweetness, a strong citric bitterness, and spicy alcohol. The 2007 version seemed more complex, but less crisp, with an aroma of chocolate-covered raisins, rum-like alcohol, and banana esters. Along with the yeasty, cidery tang, and clove-like spice, it gave the impression of a rich, Belgian dubbel. I felt it was more enjoyable overall, despite having lost some of its carbonation.

For more tips on cellaring beer, check out the Beer Advocate primer, and peruse the cellaring forum on the site.

(Photo courtesy Adrian Dingle)

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