In recent years, increasing numbers of beer enthusiasts have been developing the patience to cellar high-alcohol beers for enjoyment months or even years later.
Great candidates for aging include barleywines, imperial stouts and Belgian dark strong or golden strong ales, all of which have enough alcohol and malt complexity to continue developing through the aging process. A beer’s hop character will fade relatively quickly as a beer ages, which is why India Pale Ales should always be consumed as fresh as possible and not cellared for a special occasion. But bigger beers can develop in interesting ways.
Some breweries spare the need for patience by aging beers before they are released, often in oak barrels that have previously contained spirits or wine to add even more layers of complexity. However, these beers also continue to develop even more new flavors as they mature after being purchased. For my palate, two to three years is typically the ideal aging period, but this definitely varies from beer to beer, as it does with wine.
One brewery with an outstanding track record with barrel-aged beers is Firestone Walker Brewing Co., based in Paso Robles. Each year they release new vintages of barrel-aged brews – 2014 included Sucaba (barleywine), Parabola (imperial stout), Stickee Monkee (Central Coast quad), Double DBA (imperial extra special bitter) and Velvet Merkin (oatmeal stout). As a final release each year, to celebrate its anniversary, Firestone releases a blend of several barrel-aged brews – this year’s release is simply called XVIII. XVIII is a blend of nine different beers, several of which are not available anywhere outside the brewery.
To highlight the effects of aging, I tasted the 2013 and 2014 vintages of Double DBA side-by-side, as well as the 2013 and 2014 Velvet Merkin. Thanks to the tasting panel who enjoyed the brews and shared their insights with me: Guy Cameron, Andrew Carroll, Doug Weitz and Robin Wolfgram.
The 2014 release of Double DBA, an imperial extra special bitter, showcased a complex malt aroma with notes of toffee and honey. The slightly sweet but balanced flavor profile including toffee, caramel and vanilla character masked the hop bitterness. The beer was full-bodied, with a distinct alcohol warmth, not surprising given its 12 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Rather than highlighting any particular spirit, the interplay between British specialty malts and vanillins from the oak barrels took center stage.
By contrast, the 2013 version had mellowed significantly, with less alcohol heat and less aroma. Lighter in color, the 2013 bottle also demonstrated some oxidation, which added another enjoyable layer of sherry and raisin to the previously described malt flavors of the 2014. While the 2014 beer was exceptional, the aged bottle was even better.
Velvet Merkin is Velvet Merlin oatmeal stout aged in bourbon barrels, and the 2014 bottle had a roasty aroma with huge amounts of dark cocoa and a distinct vanilla character from the bourbon and the oak. The oatmeal provided a smooth, luscious body to complement the pleasant flavors of cocoa, vanilla and coconut. The bourbon was pronounced without being overwhelming.
To the surprise of all the tasters, the 2013 version was disappointing, with a harsh boozy aroma, thinner body and slightly acrid, ashy flavor that intensified as it warmed. Upon its release, the 2013 Merkin was quite enjoyable, so this may have been a bad bottle. At 8.5 percent ABV, the beer may not be as suitable for longer aging as bigger beers, but it should have been good for at least a year. Lesson learned: One of the risks of aging is the intensifying of all flavor characteristics, whether good or bad.
Derek Wolfgram is chief communications officer for the Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, which welcomes new and experienced beer enthusiasts. For more information, visit sudzers.org.