(And by “one percent” we don’t mean ABV.)
As craft beer production continues to increase, craft beer enthusiasts are exploring the complex flavor terrain that results when certain beers are allowed to age. Though some bars do offer patrons the opportunity to order aged beers direct from the bar cellar, Vintage Beer, a new book by Patrick Dawson, breaks down the all-important whys and how-tos of aging beer at home — from the science of what happens to a beer’s ingredients over time to choosing the right varieties for your collection.
We asked Patrick to explain why he’s hooked on vintage beers, and of course (impatient souls that we are) whether someone interested in aging beer themselves would really have to wait many years to reap the rewards.
|Photo © Lindsay Dawson|
What is “vintage beer”?
To me, a vintage beer is any beer that improves past its initial fermentation. The majority of craft beers are brewed to reach their peak as soon as possible. The other 1 percent or so, the vintage beers, have the building blocks necessary to develop unique, fun aspects that you’d never find in the other 99 percent.
Is aging beers a new trend, or something that’s been happening quietly in cellars for a long time? What’s sparked the increased interest in it?
The concept of aging beer has existed for more than a century. Bass brewed Ratcliffe, their first “tribute” ale, in 1869 with the intent of it being a commemoration beer, one that could stand up over a long period of time and still taste great whenever it was finally opened. Heck, the Russian imperial stouts became another, albeit initially unintentional, example after Russian courtiers went nuts for the flavors that developed across the long journey from England to Catherine the Great’s court. However, it’s only been in the past five years or so, amidst this recent craft beer explosion, that it’s become a notable trend. The average beer drinker nowadays has proven they’re willing to put both their patience and hard-earned cash into products that will age well, and the craft beer industry has responded by making some amazing vintage beers.
What’s the appeal of vintage beers, in terms of taste and in terms of the process?
It’s the process part that intrigues me; it’s a lot of fun in and of itself. I’m sure most brewers wouldn’t appreciate this, but when you buy a beer and age it in your cellar, and it turns out well, you feel partly responsible for it, like you helped make the beer what it is. Regardless of how true that actually is, it’s a great, satisfying feeling.
In regards to taste, the appeal is definitely the new spectrum of flavors that can be created. In a big picture view, the two flavors that you’ll encounter will be that of oxidation or wine. Oxidation has such a negative connotation in the beer world because of what it does to non-vintage beers, but it can be responsible for some incredible flavors given the right building blocks. When people ask me for advice about which beers to age, the first thing I ask them is whether they like sherry or port, since both showcase the fantastic flavors that oxidation can create. If they’re fans of either, they’ll appreciate the flavors of an aged barley wine or imperial stout. If they don’t like sherry or port, which isn’t that unusual, I’ll then ask if they like wine. This is because as sour beers age, the traditional malty and hoppy flavors slowly fade and you end up with a beer that has body, acidity, and fruitiness that greatly resembles wine.
How did you get started aging beers? What about it hooked you?
I really got started when a friend opened up a three-year old magnum of Duvel for me. I’d never been super crazy about that beer when I’d had it fresh; it was a bit too boozy and in-your-face. But those few years had mellowed it into a wealth of fruity and sweet flavors to create a masterpiece of a beer. That totally hooked me. So much, in fact, that I started aging all sorts of beer, most of which had no business being aged. It was after a few years of somewhat painful learning that I really began studying what happens to beer as it ages and why. A few more years after that, I decided to write Vintage Beer to help others avoid the same mistakes I made.
We aren’t the most patient people when it comes to waiting to open a beer. Do we really have to age it for ten years to experience noticeable changes in flavors?
Definitely not. To be honest, of the 1 percent of beer that could be considered vintage-worthy, I’d say it’s only the top 5 percent that could truly stand up for 10 years or more. Most vintage beer only needs 6 months to 3 years to hit its peak. Great beer styles to age for less than a year are imperial stouts and American barley wines. Imperial stouts are usually quite boozy and overwhelmingly coffee-like when fresh, and just a year will help to mellow this and develop rich chocolate and dark fruit flavors. Founders Breakfast Stout or Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout are two I’d suggest. American barley wines are another example. They’re so initially hoppy and “hot” that they come across more like a double IPA. Age them for around a year and they’ll retain a respectable amount of hoppiness, while allowing some of those traditional dried fruit and sherry barley wine flavors to emerge. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot is the classic example of this. And if you’re too impatient to wait a year, with a little work you can usually find some forgotten year-old bottles in out-of-the-way liquor stores.
Patrick Dawson has been accredited as a judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and has been collecting, aging, and consuming vintage beers for more than a decade. He is a respected voice on the subject. He also reviews brew pubs for the North Denver Tribune. His personal cellar holds around 300 beers at any given moment. He lives in Denver, Colorado. Visit Patrick’s website: pdawson.com.