Tag Archives: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

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.

Brown Beers Get No Luvin’: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.2)

Raise your hand if brown beer is one of your all-time favourites.

… … …          … … …          … … …Newcastle_Brown_Ale_6-pack (WikiCommons-LokkoRobson)Just as I expected: not too many hands.

Brown beers get no luvin’. Maybe it’s our infatuation with IPAs and IBUs. Maybe it’s brown beer’s vaguely middle-of-the-road status: Brown ale has precious little in common with a lager, Pils, cream ale or Kölsch, and doesn’t quite match the intensity of most porters and stouts. Brown ale ranges in colour from dark amber to chestnut to copper-brown, sometimes even dark brown. But other beers that aren’t subject to the brown beer stigma share these characteristics as well, like some pale ales and old ales.

Some English bitters flirt with the outer edges of brown––no less brown than a Sam Smith Nut Brown, which is actually of the dark amber persuasion. Many barleywines exhibit varying hues of brown as well, and guess what? They don’t suffer from any image problems whatsoever. And then there’s all those lighter-coloured and less intensely-hued porters. Doing just fine too. Brown beer loses out because it’s called Brown Beer. I mean, can you really call a beer “Back in Brown,” or “Fade to Brown,” or “All Cats at Night Are Brown”? WritingDifference (www-press-uchicago-edu)No. “My Brown Cardigan” might be as good as it gets. If that fails, name the beer after your (brown) dog.

But is this a mere hue and cry over colour? It’s more than that, I think. The colour spectrum of brown beer shades over into a hybridity of aroma and flavour as well: not quite pale ale, not quite porter. We’re at a loss when confronted with a brown beer. Are brown beers malty or hoppy? Full-flavoured or a well-choreographed ballet of moderate levels of malt and hops? Sessionable? Dry or slightly sweet? All of the above? Brown beers may well be the quintessential “undecidable” beer style. Which is, perhaps, why we decide against it when the choices at our local bottle shop or taproom are so vast.

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It’s still quite busy here in Tempest Land. While my more involved writing projects sit on the backburner to make room for my brew kettle––I’ve been catching up on homebrewing projects all week––here’s another Saturday Six-Pack for your enjoyment.IMG_1854 If Saturday’s too far off and/or you live in the U.S., drink these eminently autumnal beers with your Thanksgiving dinner.

Last time, I pulled together a selection of beer styles that I drink less often than other styles. This time the rationale’s similar, the only difference being that I actually drink my fair share of brown beer. I’m going to assume, however, that brown beers aren’t what many a beer drinker would bring to a gathering of like-minded beverage enthusiasts. For the purposes of this six-pack, I have bracketed out other styles that are brown in colour and sometimes in name, such as Oud Bruin, Bock and Doppelbock, and Munich Dunkel.

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Since not all of us are brown beer aficionados, what can we expect from these beers?

If you’re a porter fan, you’ll be interested to learn that the contemporary English mild ale (sometimes called “dark mild”) is likely one of the beers that made it into early porter mixes. Indeed, some contemporary versions are reminiscent of lower-gravity brown porter. Today, “mild” refers to a relative lack of hop bitterness; historically, however, the term was reserved for younger beers that had not yet developed the sourness of aged batches.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, breweries began bottling a slightly sweeter rendition of this ale as an answer to the growing reaction against vinous vatted porter and milds that went south all too quickly. English brown ales of this sort are generally split into sub-styles along geographic lines. Southern English (or “London-style”) brown ales are darker, sweeter, and lower in alcohol than their northern counterparts. Brown ale originated in London, where the calcium carbonate- and sodium chloride-rich water favoured the production of darker styles such as porter, stout, and dark mild. Perhaps due to the cultural influence of the capital city, this southern type of brown ale came to be brewed throughout England. As is the case with mild ales, London-style browns are beers that you hardly ever see in North America, unless you happen to be judging at a homebrew competition. The style is also becoming increasingly rare even in Olde Albion.

But brown ale lives on as a style associated with the northeast of England, even if what we now call Northern English brown ale or, simply, nut brown ale, debuted on the opposite end of England in Cornwall. This is a nutty and biscuit-like beer ranging in colour from dark amber to reddish-brown, and one that is drier and has less caramel character than its London-style relative to the south. The hop notes are more pronounced than in a Southern English brown, but not so much as to overwhelm the nut-and-biscuit malt profile. Roast notes make an occasional and subtle appearance in these styles as well.

As I’m sure no one will find in the least bit surprising, North American interpretations of the style are, generally, hoppier and maltier. As per the BJCP Style Guidelines, American brown ale “can be considered a bigger, maltier, hoppier interpretation of Northern English Brown Ale or a hoppier, less malty brown porter, often including [a] citrus-accented hop presence.” My favourite American brown ales have a distinctive barley tea-like character––mugi-cha, for anyone who has had the pleasure of drinking this cold barley tea on a sultry summer day in Japan––and a roasted accent that falls between bitter-sweet chocolate and coffee.

*The Newcastle Brown Ale website suggests a serving temperature of 38-40F (3-4C), but in my experience these beers do much better at cellar temperature. If you drink them cool or cold, you won’t get any of the subtle malt characteristics that only come into their own around 50F (10C) or higher. This is particularly the case with English examples you might come across.

Ellie’s Brown Ale (Avery Brewing Company, Colorado). Pleasant roast malts predominate but don’t overpower the dark chocolate in this pecan-brown beer with russet highlights.Avery - Ellies6pk (averybrewing-com) The aromas are earthy, with just the slightest hint of licorice. On the palate, a residual maple sweetness counters a chocolate-accented roast character intertwined with malted milk and toffee. Hops play a supporting role, contributing an almost eucalyptus-like herbal-medicinal touch and a smoothly bitter undertone.

Boffo Brown Ale (Dark Horse Brewing Company, Michigan). Deeply hued dark chestnut brown with mahogany highlights, the aroma of this beer doubles the appearance to suggest that we’re nearing porter territory. The complex malt character shines, with dark chocolate and cocoa-dusted dark cherry mingling with baking spice. Fig jam makes an appearance, with a sprinkle of ground ginger mixed in. All of this quickly crests into a Campari-like bitterness, leading to a lingering finish reminiscent of a high-end cup of cocoa.

Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale (Samuel Smith Old Brewery, England). The crystal-clear and beautifully hued dark amber liquid in your glass announces fine things to come. Sam Smith’s tell-tale earthy-licorice-anise aroma pervades a finely-orchestrated combination of toffee and apples with a touch of vanilla that is almost cream soda-like.SamSmith AngelWhiteHorse (samuelsmithbrewery-co-uk) The malt accents fall on biscuit and toasted nuts, with layered dark cherry and hazelnut teaming up with ghee and butterscotch to round out the ensemble. The nutty finish features an appetizing and almost tannic dryness.

Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, California). Roast notes of bitter-sweet chocolate intermingle with floral-pine hops to make this beer the most identifiably “American” of the lot. Like the Boffo Brown, its complexion and aromas brush up against the boundaries of porterdom. Tumbler Autumn Brown is a compelling mix of bright levity and earthy seriousness: a smooth and balanced interlacing of toffee and stewed dark fruit, a whiff of autumn smokiness, and bright flavor hops keep things on the graceful side. The long and beguiling finish is reminiscent of the kirsch-soaked cherries in Black Forest cherry cake. N.B.: As of 2014, this beer is no longer available as a stand-alone offering, but you can still get it as part of Sierra Nevada’s Fall Variety Pack.

Old Brown Dog Ale (Smuttynose Brewing Company, New Hampshire). What’s with all the dogs gracing the labels of American brown ales? Cuddly-looking old brown dog or no, this is one flavourful brown ale––the brown ale, in fact, that convinced me some years ago that brown ales were a style worth a second look. If Smuttynose’s Old Brown Dog looks almost identical to Sam Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, it is to fruitiness what Sam Smith is to nuttiness. In many ways, this beer reminds me of some Munich Dunkels and Märzens that I’ve had: toasty fresh bread and plum-dark cherry. Layered together with this Munich-like malt character comes a dash of cocoa and bright maple sugar en route to a fruity-bitter off-dry finish.

Upslope Brown Ale (Upslope Brewing Company, Colorado).Upslope Brown (upslopebrewing-com) Upslope’s offering is the most “woodsy” of the beers in this six-pack, and its roasted signature is also one of the most prominent of the beers featured here. Wisps of smoke intertwine with earthy forest floor, cocoa powder, maple sap, and lightly charred coffee before yielding mid-palate to plum-fruit. The dry and moderately astringent bitter finish opens onto an aftertaste of spiced, roasted nuts.

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Even if it’s only Monday, grab a six-pack of these under-rated and inexpensive beers to accompany your Thanksgiving meal, to sip over the coming weekend, or to sample with a group of friends.

What are some of your favourite brown beers? Let us know in the comments.

Related Tempest Articles

Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.1)

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

Further Reading

Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, Brewing Classic Styles (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 2007).

Michael Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).

Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont, The World Atlas of Beer (New York: Sterling Epicure, 2012).

BJCP Style Guidelines, 2008 edition.

Images

Newcastle Brown Ale Six-Pack: Lokko Robson (Wiki Commons)

Cover of Derrida’s Writing and Difference: University of Chicago Press

Witbier yeast starter gone wild: F.D. Hofer

Ellie’s Brown Ale: Avery

The Angel & White Horse Pub next to Sam Smith’s Tadcaster brewery: Samuel Smith’s Brewery

Can of Upslope: Upslope Brewing

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.