This is the first in a series of articles I am working on about deigning, brewing and cellering vintage (long-aging) beers. By long ageing I mean a year minimum, with the upper ceiling ranging upwards of a few decades. This opening post is a bit of my history with vintage beers and an example of two of my more “recent” vintage brews. Future articles will look at how these beers age, how to design and brew them, and culminate with a long-planned recipe and brewday for a beer that I hope I will enjoy for a decade or more.
I have long enjoyed vintage beers, by which I mean beers aged for years before consumption. My first experience with these beers was an accident. My first barley wine was not conceived under the best of circumstances – I was more interested in the alcohol content than the finer aspects of the style. As was the norm in the 1990’s the beer was under-pitched and fermented too warm, leading to a hot and overly estery beer that was unpalatable. Embarrassed, I hid these away in my parents basement where they were out-of-sight. Three or four years later, while helping my parents move, I found the missing cases of beer. On a lark I drank a bottle. In place of the fusel heat and esters were hints of sherry and toffee, dried fruits and wine. And so began a love of vintage beers.
Since that day I’ve made a point of aging a few bottles of any strong beer (over 8%) to see how they turn out over 8 to 18 months, and once or twice a year brew a batch of beer explicitly for laying down for some long ageing. “Recently” (March and October 2013) I brewed two such batches, and to open my mini-series on vintage beers I thought I would describe how these two particular beers have changed over time.
|Gnarly Roots Barley Wine
Brewed: March 2013
Age: 1 year, 7 months
% Alcohol: 12.8%
IBUs: 100 IBU
Other: Secondaried with Brett
|42 (Belgian Dark Strong)
Brewed: October 2013
Age: 13 months
% Alcohol: 8.2%
IBUs: 26 IBU
Other: Brewed with homemade candi
Gnarly Roots Barley Wine
This beer is a modernized version of Charlie Papazians Gnarly Roots – a barley wine aged with brettanomyces. Aside from updating the hops to more modern variants this brew is stays true to Charlies origonal. The first tasting notes can be found in this post, but things have changed noticeably in the year since that first set of notes. This beer was brewed with a mixture of a clean ale yeast and the combination of Brettanomyces lambicus and Brettanomyces bruxellensis added to the secondary.
One thing that is notable about this beer is how slowly it is aging – over the past year and a half the major changes have not been those of a vintage beer, but rather the sorts of changes that come with more normal length aging such as the mellowing of harsher yeast and alcohol flavours. At the one-year mark this gave the beer a nice character I’d associate more with a much younger strong ale; boozy, bit of alcoholic heat, none of the normal aging flavours I’d expected, and an almost over-strong hop bitterness. As the next six months went by the beer balanced out ever more nicely – the strong hop bitterness came into balance with the fairly dry finish provided by the Brett, some subtle Brett notes began to emerge, and the hotter alcohols have begun to fade into other flavours. This beer is aging – but it doing so slowly. I don’t know if it is the 12.8% alcohol, the wax seal, or the Brett in the beer, but this beer is aging far more slowly than any I’ve brewed before.
So that brings us to today – AKA the 1 year, 7 month mark. The aroma is really changing – sweet notes dominate; the sweetness is a mix of wine notes and plum-like dried fruits. The hot “alcohol” aroma is completely gone, as is any hit of hop aroma. The beer pours with a bit of head, which manages to persist for a few minutes. Aging notes are finally starting to appear – a mixed caramel/dry fruit sweetness has begun to build, a flavour which pretty much defines a barley wine. This has been complemented by the total regression of the hot alcohols, which likely broke down into aldehydes that provided those stone-fruit notes. Strangely, the beer seems less dry now, likely due to the accumulation of aldehydes and other sweet-tasting age notes. The extreme hop bitterness of the year-old beer has faded noticeably, and is in balance with the rest of the beer. Excitingly, some Brett notes are rising in the background – not the earthy/leather notes, but rather a tropical/pineapple like ester flavour appears to be building. Most importantly, the often encountered trans-2-nonenal – a cardboard-like flavour which can emerge as hop alpha acids oxidize – is completely absent. Given the high hopping levels of the beer this is a key observation that bodes well for the future of this beer. There are never any guarantees, but the fact that a year and a half of aging has led to the formation of the desired aging flavours, but not the undesired ones, certainty lends some confidence to the future longevity of this beer.