Eric Strader writes about the craft beer scene in Indiana and Michigan. He's a dad, husband, potter, soccer coach and special education paraprofessional who likes to read, bike, hike and canoe. You can read more from him in his community blog for The Elkhart Truth, Hop Notes.
No, I was not at the summit of Mt. Everest. Rather, I was on a plane to Utah with my family.
The trip began well, with a New Belgium Fat Tire at somewhere near 30,000 feet (the Internet was down, so the flight attendant couldn't tell me the exact height). It did cost me five bucks for a can, but heck, I was on vacation. It is nice to know that opportunities for craft beer are being found more and more. With plenty of reading material, including my latest Beer Advocate magazine, Michigan Beer Guide and Vintage Beer by Patrick Dawson (purchased at Better World Books – Goshen), I settled in for the four hour flight.
The forward of Dawson’s book is written by “Dr.” Bill Sysak, craft beer ambassador for Stone Brewing Company. It turns out he and I have been asked the same question many times: “You drink beers that are 10 years old?”
Now, these are not your every day “fizzy yellow” beers. They’re usually bottled in 22 ounce or 750 milliliter bottles, often with waxed caps, or are corked and caged. And yes, I have enjoyed beers that are 15 to 20 years old even. India pale ales and other beers that have hoppy profiles or low ABVs are intended to be drunk fresh, and it is my best recommendation that you do so.
Some styles such as barely wines, imperial stouts, Belgian quads, flanders red and brown ales, and Gueuzes can age just like fine wines. I have read accounts of 50-year-old bottles being enjoyed, which enhanced the complex flavors over time. I’ve personally participated in “vertical” tastings, which include several chronological years of the same beer. It is amazing how different vintages of the same beer can have completely different nuances.
Not many beers are intentionally brewed to be aged, but more and more breweries are doing so. Stone Brewing Company brewed its Vertical Epic series with this in mind. They brewed a different beer each year starting on February 2, 2002 (2-2-02), and continued through 12-12-12 with the idea that a craft beer enthusiast could open and enjoy the whole series in one sitting (obviously with several friends) when the series had been completely released.
Several of these beers from the later years (10-10-10 through 12-12-12) can still be found on the shelves at certain bottle shops, and some earlier ones can be found by trading. I have several extra bottles, and if you are interested in these, contact me to let me know. In fact, there is an extremely limited amount of 03-03-03 and 04-04-04 available at Chalet Party Shoppe if you are willing to spend a bit of money. If I recall, they are about $45 for a 22 ounce bottle, but they are already nicely aged.
Many of the oldest beers I have had the opportunity to enjoy have been from Bell’s Brewery and have often involved Larry Bell and Eccentric Day. The current oldest beer in my cellar is a 22-year-old Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale. I acquired several bottles of this 1992 vintage and having opened several of them over the past five years, I can attest that they are amazingly tasty. One of the most memorable vintage tasting experiences for me included opening a hand-bottled, 1994, 750 milliliter bottle of Bell’s Expedition Stout with several friends, including Marshall King and Larry Bell.
If you are enthused about aging or cellaring beer at all, or if your curiosity has been piqued, Dawson’s book is an excellent guide. Without going into too many details that are difficult to understand, the book covers many of the basics – what aspects improve, what aspects can get worse, determining vintage potential, how best to cellar beers, what styles are appropriate for cellaring and more.
I learned that because of the traditional hop varietals used, English Barley Wines generally lend themselves better to aging than American-style Barley Wines. I learned a great deal more about the microbiota present in 99 percent of all beers, including Saccharomyces Cerevisiae; traditional beer yeast, including Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and Acetobacter; acid-producing bacteria; and Brettanomyces yeast, as well as how all of these affect the taste profile of any cellared beer.
There is even a section of eight classicly cellarable beer brands, complete with tasting notes from both a fresh and vintage bottle tasting. The last chapter gives reviews of outstanding vintage beer bars around the world, the two closest being in Chicago (Deliliah’s and Twisted Spoke). Both of these bars have excellent bottle lists, but buying beer that has already been aged can be a very expensive hobby. If you are interested, I would suggest you talk with Chris Stuck, craft beer consultant at Chalet Party Shoppe, or Dan Radkey at City Wide Liquor (who works at the downtown South Bend location on Jefferson Boulevard location) for some suggested bottles to get started. City Wide Liquor also has a section of their wine humidor set aside for vintage beers. You might get a good start here with some bottles that are a year or two old already.
As you can probably imagine, the hardest part is waiting, and then deciding the most opportune time to open your aged bottles. Another suggestion of mine is to buy two or three bottles of the same beer. Drink one fresh, open one after a year or so, then open another one at a later date.
In Michiana, here are just a few of my suggested cellarable beers: Bell’s Expedition Stout, Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale, Founders Imperial Stout and Dark Horse Plead the Fifth Imperial Stout. These are all available in 12 ounce bottles in four or six packs. That makes it a bit easier to taste fresh, then pack some away in the cellar.
Cellaring beer has been great fun for me. Not every bottle is going to turn out as you wish. Sometimes the beer doesn’t age as I had thought it would, and sometimes I miss the optimum point for opening the beer. It turns out to be part science, part art and part stab in the dark. But when you open that bottle at just the right time, with just the right people, it will make it all well worth the effort.
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