[that is, one brewed with Brettanomyces
yeast]. But there’s definitely something at work there. There’s definitely an acidity that has started to come through, a kind of sharpening of flavors. That beer has been in the bottles for five years, and it continues to develop.
4. Don’t cellar a beer without drinking one now.
I tell people, if you have the means and you love a beer and think it’s going to be good for cellaring, buy a case. Drink one bottle. Then put the case away. Every six months, drink a bottle. Do you like it better? Or is it the same? If it starts declining, drink it fast! Typically, I don’t think they come back—it’s hard to say that a beer that goes down a certain pathway is ever going to reverse a trend and become better, although it could. You might like something that happens to it. It’s so subjective. But you have to know where you start to appreciate where it goes.
5. Age doesn’t generally create new flavors, but it lets some flavors fade, allowing other flavors to become more prominent.
Take Old Jubilation, for instance. It’s pretty roasty and big, kind of old-aleish. But if you put two to three years of age on it, there is this chocolate quality that comes out. Is that the oxidative process that’s creating the chocolate? I suspect the chocolate flavor has always been in there, but was overpowered by the specialty roasts that we use in the beer, and time takes the edge off that roast flavor, allowing the chocolate to emerge.
The Czar is similar. We designed it as a Russian Imperial Stout with more toffee than coffee, and all the specialty malts we use oxidize really well to enhance those flavors, so it becomes more like a candy bar every year. It’s kind of aggressive when it’s fresh, but that black malt and any kind of roasted flavors fade pretty quickly, and the candy bar starts coming through. It’s not necessarily sweeter from a chemical point of view, but the perceived bitterness and astringency of the beer dissipate and therefore, it becomes “sweeter” in flavor. I think that sweetness was there originally, but after aging, it doesn’t have as much competition on your palate, so it comes through.
When you have a beer that’s right out of the gate, typically it has peaks and valleys. That’s what I like in my beers. Age tends to level out those peaks and valleys. Some beers, it works and some beers, it doesn’t.
6. Brett beers tend to “clean up” when aged in the bottle.
In Brett beers, phenol and ester production survives a lot longer. For example, in The Reverend, those flavors can last a lot longer than in Hog Heaven, where we use a standard ale yeast and get a “cleaner” fermentation.
On some of the barrel beers where you have Brett involved, lots of funky things can happen. It can definitely change. But usually we have them in the barrel long enough at the right temperature so most of that activity is done [before bottling]. I think that usually, Brettbeers in a bottle “clean up” so you get less of that barnyard quality. Take for example, Ross’s’s Melange, which has been in a bottle less than a year. It was fairly Bretty when we bottled it, and now it’s really come down and it’s a much cleaner smelling beer. Brabant was the same way. It was a 100 percent Brett beer. Dépuceleuse was also a 100 percent Brett beer. The same thing happened to that. It was very aggressively Bretted, but with time a lot of those flavors dissipate, which some people find they like, while others prefer a super Brett-bomb.
One of the most interesting verticals I’ve done was in Belgium—a fourteen-year vertical for Orval. It was amazing how well the hops stayed with the beer. I couldn’t believe how well-made the beer was and how it could last that long. I’m not exactly sure what made the difference—I think it was just the Belgian magic. They dose Brett into the bottle and re-prime with sugar so there’s enough for the Brettto work on. I think there’s something to be said for that—the longevity of the Brett in that bottle.
7. Big beers age best.
The two beers that I think have the best chance of surviving and becoming better are super high-gravity bombs or super high-acidity beers. For example, our Demon series—you might be able to age them twenty years or more.
8. It’s all subjective.
The coolest part about cellaring beer is that you don’t know. There are chemical processes going on that could be figured out, but nobody is figuring them out because there’s very little money to be made in it. It all comes down to your palate, and that’s what makes it fun for me. One beer tastes like hell to somebody, and to another person it’s the best beer they ever drank. That’s what I love about beer in general or big beers, but also in cellaring. You can’t just say, “I’m going to age this beer for ten years and I know it will be great.” You don’t know. People ask me, “What should I do with this beer?” I don’t know what you should do with that beer. Do you like it right now? Do you think it’s the best beer you’ve ever had? If so, you should probably drink it right now. Otherwise, you’re just rolling the dice.
But once you start drinking a lot of beer, you can start looking at fresh beers and know that there are some flavors in there that you’ll like a year or two or three from now. Or maybe there are reasons you don’t love the beer, but you think a couple of years from now it might get better. Then you might cellar it.
I would go on record to say that with some age, even a year or less, there will be a melding of flavors. Some beers may have too many peaks and valleys [for your taste] at the start and once you get some consolidation of flavors you get a beer you enjoy more.
We’ve had our new sensory lab for close to a year. It’s weird to see how people on our staff taste different things or don’t taste different things—because everyone has a hole in [his/her] palate. There are very few “super tasters.” We had Bill Simpson, world-renowned for sensory development, come in and train fifteen of our people to become “super tasters.” They went through an intensive two-week period where they did nothing but taste spiked beers, taste our beers, taste other breweries’ beers spiked, taste all these things. He found out what everybody is good at and what everybody is bad at. It’s really good for us, because everyone tastes a bit differently.
There can be better vintages than others. For instance, I had a 2007 and a 2008 The Czar six months ago. The 2007 was far superior to the 2008. But you go back to the brew logs and everything was pretty much the same. For some reason, that vintage was better—at least to me it was. Of course, I was sitting at a table with some people who thought the 2008 was better. Again, there are no answers. There’s only a conversation. And that’s the best part about cellaring beers—you can sit down and talk about beer. There’s only one thing better than drinking beer and that’s talking with friends about beer while drinking it.