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Christmas can last all year round!

written by SARA DOERSAM

As the holidays approach, my thoughts drift from spritzy summer wheat beers to full-bodied, high-alcohol beers. Whether preparing for holiday festivities with family and friends or an intimate winters eve by the fireside, I frequently find myself padding down to my beer cellar in search of a beer that’s been readying itself for years in anticipation of this moment.

What's that? You say you thought all beer was best drunk fresh? As a rule, it's true that beer is best enjoyed before the ravages of light, heat and time denigrate its flavors and character, but some beers can actually improve over time, becoming more balanced and complex. That notwithstanding, in an era when bottled beers with "born-on" and "best-by" dates compete with fresh brewpub beer, you'd better know your beer before deciding to lay it down for five or more years.

Now, while holiday beers are still fresh and abundantly available, is the definitive time to pick up some beers for laying down. Many fine old ales and barleywines are perched upon retail shelves masquerading as holiday offerings.

MASS-PRODUCED BEERS of today are heat pasteurized and filtered, which extends their shelf-life but makes them unsuitable for laying down. While pasteurization and filtering stabilize beer and destroy bacteria that are potentially harmful to its flavor, these processes also prevent beer from improving with time. Vintage beers that are appropriate for laying down have not been through these stabilizing processes and, thus, exhibit a change in character over time.

Take, for example, Thomas Hardy's Ale, the quintessential beer for laying down. A bottle of the 1995 version tastes vastly different now, some 13 years after it was produced, than it did right off the bottling line.

Several chemical and physical changes, such as the effects of oxidation, fermentation, yeast and bacteria, as well as cellar temperature and exposure to light, play a role in the aging of beer. Certainly, you could try your hand at cellaring beers without any understanding of the effects of these factors, but you would probably also discover some years later, when tasting your vintage beers, that you wasted a lot of time and money on beers that have become undrinkable. While aging beers is always a crap shoot, the more you know and understand about the process, the more success you will have when cellaring your prize beers.

OXIDATION

Oxidation, or the exposure of beer to air, can have a detrimental effect on beer by imparting a sherry-like characteristic or what is sometimes described as "wet cardboard." In delicate beers such as light lagers, milds or Pilsners, the effects of oxidation can dominate the flavor and aroma, but in hearty beers like strong Scotch ales and Trappist ales, the vinous character can enhance the beers by adding flavor and complexity.

Beer enthusiasts have long debated what role bottle size plays in the maturation of beers. For example, how does the flavor of a vintage Belgian Scaldis Noel aged in a 25-centiliter bottle compare to the same beer aged in a 1.5-liter magnum bottle? In larger bottles, beer has less exposure to air in the head space relative to the total volume of beer, so the larger bottle reduces the risk of excessive oxidation. Nevertheless, while large bottles may be preferred for aging beer, given no other choice, I would not reject a beer well suited for aging just because it is in a small bottle.

YEAST AND FERMENTATION

When a beer is bottle-conditioned, meaning it is bottled with live yeast suspended in the beer, the beer continues to ferment in the bottle, all the while changing in character. As the yeast feeds on the residual sugars in the beer, the beer loses some of its body and becomes drier. Even after the yeast runs out of sugar to feed on, it contributes to beer's body, aroma and flavor profile. Still, it is not imperative that a beer be bottle-conditioned to be a good candidate for laying down. There are many beers and beer styles that improve with time despite a lack of live yeast munching away on sugar in the bottle.

BACTERIAL EFFECTS

As a rule, bacterial infection is not a desirable characteristic in beers that are best drunk fresh. Indeed, bacterial contamination can dominate a beer, rendering it unpleasantly sour and virtually undrinkable. The sourness is usually derived from wild strains of yeast or bacteria that hop aboard the beer as it's being brewed or fermented and wreak havoc on the final product.

But some styles of Belgian beers are highly prized for their distinct sour or lactic character. In particular, Belgian lambic ales employ spontaneous fermentation induced by wild yeast, which is allowed, indeed invited, into the breweries' open fermentation vessels. So while most beer is fermented with cultured yeast strains, many Belgian ales are intentionally fermented with wild yeast strains and influenced by bacteria which impart that lactic character.

If you question how lactic or sour beers could possibly taste good, consider gourmet vinegars, some cheeses, sourdough bread or yogurt ó all influenced by aging bacteria and appreciated by acquired tastes. Thus, in controlled conditions, that same sourness or lactic character can surely enhance some beers.

CELLARING CONDITIONS

The temperature in which beer is stored or even transported plays an important role in its character. Cold temperatures abate changes to beer during aging; therefore, to reduce the effects of time on most beers, keep it cold. But if your intent is to transmogrify your beer with age, it is important to allow it to mature at cellar temperatures ranging from 50-65 degrees F with little fluctuation.

At these temperatures, the yeast, particularly in bottle-conditioned beer, is warm enough that it can remain active. If conditions become too cold, the yeast may slow down or become altogether dormant, and if too hot, the yeast may die.

Likewise, it is important to store your beer in the dark. Light can interact with the hops in beer, causing your beer to become light struck or skunky. Beer that smells like skunk is never inviting nor desirable.

A FEW OTHER RULES OF AGING

From the moment beer is put into a container, it begins to deteriorate, but if a beer is bottle-conditioned, high in alcohol, heartily hopped, smoked or a combination of any of these conditions, the effects of time can enhance its character and flavor.

High-alcohol beers like barley wines, old ales and strong Scotch ales are not as susceptible to the negative effects of bacteria. It is more difficult to detect off flavors imparted by bacteria in a robust, strong beer than it is in a delicate beer that readily reveals the most minute of flaws.

Additionally, both hops and smoke have a preservative effect on beer. For example, India pale ale, first brewed near the end of the 18th century to ship from England to India as sustenance for the British colonists, is traditionally high in alcohol and aggressively hopped. As testimony to its candidacy as a vintage beer, it spent some five months in casks on its journey from England to India and quickly grew in popularity for its dry finish and fine carbonation.

Similarly, smoked beers, "rauchbier" in German, fare well over time. The malt is fire-kilned, which imparts a distinctive smoky color and flavor as well as a preservative effect, just as with smoked meats.

Hops, as well as fruit, herbs and spices, lose their pungency in beer as it matures. So, if you're fortunate enough to be aging a highly hopped Kalamazoo Brewing Co. Bell's Third Coast Old Ale, you may be as pleased as punch to discover that after three years the dominant hop bitterness has mellowed substantially, and your beer is more balanced and round.

Corked beers should be stored on their side, while crowned beers are best stored upright. As a rule, corked beers run a smaller risk than crowned beers of leaking at the seal. But corks can and often do impart a slightly musty, corky aroma and flavor to beers stored on their side, and I personally find that these factors contribute to a beer's complexity.

When opening bottle-conditioned or corked vintage beers, be sure to cover the top with a towel and aim it away from yourself and your quaffing companions. Enough pressure may have built up in the bottle to blast a screaming cork ricocheting throughout the room.

Try to ensure that your beers are in good condition when you purchase them for laying down. Usually, your best bet is to buy them from a reputable beer merchant, preferably in brown bottles. Ask your merchant if the beers you want to buy are good candidates for cellaring.

Imagine the delights and rewards a vertical tasting of several vintages of the same brand can offer. Yes, there will probably be some disappointments, but it will always be interesting and educational. Half of the fun of laying down beer is the quest to find the perfect beer for cellaring. The other half, of course, is tasting it at the optimum moment, but the hardest part is resisting the temptation to drink your vintage beers before their time.

SIDEBARS:

Rules of thumb when cellaring beer

 

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