Tag Archives: Brett-Saison

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

To age, or not to age?

This temporal variation of a timeless existential question is one that’s being asked with growing frequency in the craft beer world.IMG_2369But even if cellaring beer has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation of late, it’s still relative terra incognita for the craft beer community writ large.

Beer and Time. To age, or not to age? You’d be forgiven for considering the question absurd, for we’ve been conditioned to think that old beer is bad beer. And in most cases, beer doesn’t fight a winning battle with time.

IMG_4459That said, not all beers are brewed equally – and I don’t mean this in a normative sense. Many beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. But some beers are destined for the longue durée: in plain English, the cellar.

Before we descend too many steps into the cobwebbed darkness, let me state categorically that there’s no reason why a beer shouldn’t be consumed fresh, even if it’s a candidate for aging. A bottle of just-released Boulevard Saison-Brett is every bit as good as one that has battled with the spiders in your cellar for a year or more. And time will transform the perfectly drinkable Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barley wines destined to hit the shelves in the coming months into something all together different. Therein lies the fun of experimenting. But don’t take my word for it. Try for yourself!

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What follows are tips and basic rules of thumb to get you started. Even if you don’t have the most ideal conditions, start by laying down a few age-worthy beers for six months to a year.

  1. Friends and foes.

Beer prefers cool, dark places. Light –– especially sunlight –– will skunk your beer in no time. Heat isn’t kind to beer either. Prolonged periods of storage north of 70F (21C) will accelerate oxidation, and leave your beer resembling cardboard. You might already be acquainted with the stale taste of those unfortunate yet otherwise stellar Central European beers that have arrived in North American bars and bottle shops in tatters.

If you’re planning on getting serious about long-term cellaring, temperature control is key. It can mean the difference between a stellar imperial stout five years down the road, or a long, melancholy walk to the sink to pour it all down the drain.IMG_1893 Not only does beer like darkness and coolness, it’s also a bit like Goldilocks –– not too hot, not too cold, and happiest at a constant temperature between about 50F (10C) and 60F (15C). If your conditions are too warm, bacteria that are less active at lower temperatures come out to play. What’s more, the yeast that contribute to that slow, magical transformation in bottle-conditioned beers won’t live to tell about their journey at high temperatures. Too cold, and all these gradual changes are slowed down to a snail’s pace, or arrested altogether. (Better too cold than too warm, though.)

Actual cellars or basements are best, should you have access to a cellar or basement. Your fridge will work in a pinch. And if you have a wine fridge, you’re set. That’s where I hide away all my gueuzes, Belgian quads, barley wines, imperial stouts barrel-aged or otherwise, and any other beers boasting a best-before date years from now.

  1. Tried-and-True.

Cellaring beer involves a certain amount of experimentation, but you can start off on the right track with styles like barley wines, imperial stouts, Baltic porters, Scotch ales, Belgian quads, barrel-aged beers, and Doppelbocks like Samichlaus. You may have noticed a pattern here. These beers usually clock in well above 7% ABV, with the high amount of alcohol acting as a preservative. These styles also typically contain plenty of malt, leaving enough residual sugar for the yeast to slowly convert into caramel, chocolate, or dark fruit flavours –– flavours that meld well with oxidative notes such as nuts and sherry.

The malt plus high ABV equation isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Highly acidic beers and/or those fermented with wild yeast strains also tend to develop in pleasantly surprising ways over the long haul.IMG_3458 Lambics, gueuzes, Flemish reds (the vintage-dated Rodenbach is stellar), and many American sours and Brett beers are worth the wait. Saisons are finicky, but I’ve had great luck with higher-ABV offerings such as those from Funkwerks in Fort Collins, and have found that both batches of high-ABV saison I brewed had mellowed and evolved more complex tropical fruit notes by the time they had hit one year.

  1. Good Housekeeping.

Get a sense of which beers do well within certain windows of time. Some beers you can deep-six and forget about; others may improve with some age, but decline rapidly after a certain point. Keep track, because as your cellar grows, you will lose track. I note down the following:

  • Name of beer and brewery.
  • Vintage date, if any.
  • Date purchased.
  • Place purchased. (At the brewery? At a bottle shop? This may affect your decision about how long you’d like to age a beer. Unless you know the folks at your bottle shop well, you may not have the best sense of how the bottles have been handled before arriving on a particular shelf.)
  • Number of bottles purchased.
  • Style. (Some styles hold up better than others.)
  • Ballpark estimate of the “best before” date, unless indicated on the label. (Low-ball this one: better to drink too early than too late).
  • Tasting notes –– the fun part! (In addition to the usual tasting notes, I add details such as date consumed, how well the beer held up, speculations on whether the beer could have aged longer, and the like.)
  1. Go Vertical.

Arranging a vertical tasting is an excellent way to see how beers evolve. A vertical tasting is comprised of a selection of the same beer or wine but from different vintages –– say, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Not all beers are released with vintage dates, but an increasing number are. If you’re lucky, your bottle shop might offer verticals of the same beer for a reasonable price. If not, simply seek out some cellar-worthy beer. Widely available and relatively inexpensive beers like North Coast’s Old Stock Ale or Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot make excellent building blocks for your future vertical tastings. Lay down about three bottles of the same beer per year and then invite some regular drinking compadres over for a treat a few years hence. Open up three or four different vintages, starting with the most recent vintage and working your way back. Doing this only once in your life will drive home how much of a difference time can make.

  1. You Never Step in the Same River Twice.

IMG_4476Even if the vast majority of the biochemical reactions have long since taken place before the beer ends up in the bottle, beer components like oxygen, proteins, tannins, and esters continue their pas-de-deux well into the wee hours of the ensuing months and years.

*Bitterness mellows, and the jagged edges of alcoholic heat become more rounded.

*Oxidized characteristics start to emerge. Some of these enhance the beer, while others indicate that the beer may be becoming more fit for malt vinegar. A few descriptors for your tasting notes: straw, leather, sherry, nuts, port-like, earthy, woody. In some Belgian sours, you might even notice beguiling notes of high-end balsamic vinegar.

*Hop character fades, while malt notes intensify, especially in melanoidin-rich beers like Scotch ales or barleywines.

*Sweetness can also become more pronounced –– due, in no small part, to the decrease in hop intensity. Expect more dark honey and toffee.

*Stale, vinegar, cardboard. Damn. If any of these characteristics predominate, your gamble didn’t pay off, or you left the beer in the cellar for too long.

The Faustian Bargain.

Cellaring is a gamble. You’ll have some sublime tasting experiences, but be prepared for the occasional disappointment of diabolical proportions. This is not an exact science, and most of us are still learning which styles benefit from some age, and which don’t. But that’s the fun of it.

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As an idea, aging beer has barely hit adolescence. As a body of knowledge, it’s still very much a collaborative project. I’ve shared some pointers above, and have listed Tempest articles below that touch upon aging beer. Do you have experiences with cellaring beer as well? Share them in the comments!

Further Reading

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Marking Time with a Brett-Saison from Boulevard

A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie’s Pirate Bomb, Goose Island’s Bourbon County, Victory’s Dark Intrigue

Andy Sparhawk, “Cellaring Craft Beer,” Craft Beer (August 2015).

Alistair Bland, “Vintage Beer?The Salt, NPR (January 2015).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Marking Time with a 2013 Brett-Saison from Boulevard

Tempest is marking time in more ways than one these days.

  • Tempest recently turned eighteen months young.
  • It’s been far too long since I’ve been at my keyboard. April and May kept me busy with our local homebrew club, as did interview preparation for a new job. That latter effort paid off.
  • Tempest might take on a decidedly Euro flavour over the next few years, for in a little over three months I start a new position in Vienna.

Time to celebrate! For Tempest’s eighteen-month anniversary, I opened a 2013 Brett-Saison from Boulevard, and compared it with the notes I scribbled last November on a 2014 Brett-Saison a friend brought over for dinner. File these notes under cellaring –– another means of marking time.

Cheers to you for reading over these past eighteen months!

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Before we get into the Brett-Saison, here are a few highlights from the past six months.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3): Why? Because we really can’t drink too many lagers in one lifetime. For those who still need convincing, this 6-pack takes a few steps beyond the golden and the fizzy.

The MaltHead Manifesto: A tongue-in-cheek defense of malt over hops.IMG_1893

Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker in 2015: The take-away: glassware and serving temperatures.

New York’s Finger Lakes Region: A Back-Road Craft Beer Tour: Everything you need to know for your summer escape from the city.

In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden: Summer’s on the horizon. Get ye to Munich. And read this before you go. Bonus: I was consulted for an article in The Atlantic on beer gardens.

A Taste of Oklahoma in Six Glasses: Who said there was nothing to drink in Oklahoma?

Spreading Good Cheer with a Tankard of Mulled Beer: ’Tis not quite the season, but tuck this recipe away for your winter entertaining. You won’t be disappointed.

Heading to Colorado this summer? Be sure to stop in at some of the breweries and brewpubs that I visited for my Northern Front Range series.

Striking Craft Beer Gold in Boulder

At the Foot of the Mountain: Boulder’s Brewpubs and Breweries 

Craft Beer in the Mile-High City: Colorado’s Northern Front Range Series

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And now for that Saison-Brett that has been waiting patiently.

Boulevard’s Saison-Brett is part of this venerable Kansas City brewery’s Smokestack Series of beers. The Saison-Brett begins its life as the already-excellent Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale before the brewers save some of it for dry-hopping and inoculation with Brettanomyces at bottling. Boulevard allows the bottles to condition a subsequent three months before release. The result, if you drink it within the first six months of release, is a vivaciously fruity-spicy beer with the first murmurings of Brett.IMG_1875

The 2014 vintage (April release) that I had in November 2014 was an appealingly luminescent honey-gold beer that exuded bright pineapple and passion fruit notes limned with suggestions of tangerine zest. The nascent Brett character evoked memories of hiking through Alpine meadows on a hot summer afternoon, and a hint of honey sweetness on the palate added a beguiling roundness to the effervescent and peppery-dry palate.

If you have the patience and inclination, cellaring will greatly alter the character of Boulevard’s Brett-Saison. Notice I didn’t say improve or enhance, but nor am I suggesting that the beer doesn’t gain in complexity with time. What you decide to do with your newly-purchased bottle of Saison-Brett will depend on what kinds of sensory qualities you’re after –– one of the joys of experimenting with age-worthy beers!

Fast-forward seven months. The Saison-Brett I have before me is a corked-and-caged 750mL bottling from March 2013, purchased in spring 2014 and cellared until now. Two-odd years removed from bottling, the vibrant fruit that marked the younger version has faded, replaced by predominant Brett notes of old hay, dusty blankets, farmyard, and a mixture of bandaid and allspice. Faint tropical fruit shimmers around the edges.

Age-worthy beers tend to open up and develop in the glass in ways similar to wine. After a few sips of this very dry beer that swirls together flavours of dried hay, dried flowers, and a slight echo of honey on a bracingly bitter palate that also offered up Seville orange marmalade on the finish, I turned my attention again to the aromas. And caught my breath after writing that sentence.IMG_2976

Orange zest. Dried flowers. Sagebrush. It’s as if the vivid tropical fruit of the younger version has given way to fields of herbs in dry Mediterranean climates. Head a bit north in Europe and you’ll find the muskiness of northern French apple cider alongside subdued coconut-citrus and lemongrass intertwined with hints of German Riesling (apricot and slate). Another round of sips reveals layers of white pepper and a nutty bitterness reminiscent of apricot kernels to match the flinty-dry minerality.

German Riesling meets Mediterranean summer fields and northern French apple cider? Why not.

(He’s making this stuff up, isn’t he?)

The verdict: The aged version of Boulevard’s Brett-Saison is nothing if not complex, but it’s a complexity marked less by the spirited fruitiness of younger versions than it is by a richly expressive Brett palette (meadows, hay, dried herbs and flowers, and nuanced fruit). For all the beer’s complexity, though, the bitterness of the aged version borders on distracting. That said, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying a bottle and forgetting about it for a year or two, especially if you’re a Brett aficionado and are willing to embrace the bitterness and dryness of the aged versions.

2014 Brett-Saison (consumed within six months of release): Two Tankards

2013 Brett-Saison (consumed two years and three months after release): One Tankard

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On the horizon: I’ll be setting out on a road trip from Oklahoma to Upstate New York in the next week or so, and will also head to Vancouver to visit family and friends before relocating to Vienna in mid-August. I’ll try to write two or three articles per month between now and early autumn. They’ll probably come out in short bursts whenever I can find the time to write, so check back periodically.

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Tempest has been on Instagram for the past six months. Check out Tempest on Facebook as well. I’ll be posting very short “photo essays” there over the summer and early autumn.

Related Tempest Articles

The Sunday Sour Sessions: Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Saison

The Curiosity Cabinet: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée

Gose Gone Wild: Anderson Valley, Bayrischer Bahnhof, Choc, and Westbrook

Not Your Average Wheat Beer: Schneider’s Porter Weisse

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.