A tale of two beers

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.

The beers:

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


Remainder of the post is below the fold…

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.

42 – Belgian Dark Strong

This beer is a Belgian Dark Strong, brewed with homemade candi sugar (links 1 and 2) and fermented with Wyeast 3822PC – a Belgian yeast that leans more towards peppery than clove in its phenols, has a restrained (but present) ester profile and provides a bit of an acidic finish. I didn’t build this beer to be a long-aging beer, but I threw a half-case into the basement to see how it would do. The first tasting of this beer is reported in-depth in this post, but long story short is it began with a nice mix of malt and pepper, with subtle hints of stone fruits.
As the beer aged it lost some of its malt character – a normal event as beers age. This usually leads to some sherry-like flavours that act to balance out the other beer characteristics. During the 6-8 month range the loss of malt flavours got ahead of the formation of the oxidized malt flavours, leaving the pepper flavour on its own – to the point that a few bottles were almost hot with the pepper character. As aging continued the beer regained its balance, and now at the 13 month mark has turned out really nice.
At the 13 month mark this beer opens with an aroma is pepper and malt, with a bit of yeast. The aroma is milder than when the beer was young. The flavour is what has really changed, and unlike the 8-13 month period, the change has been favourable. The flavours of aged malts has begun to emerge – sherry and toffee notes are now noticeable, and balance the peppery phenols quite nicely – in fact, the beer seems sweeter now than it did fresh. The esters have also begun to change, going from the fresh fruit flavours in the young beer to more “dried fruit” character. This includes, much to my surprise, a subtle taste of dried apricots. Phenol flavours tend to be stable, but some of the aged phenol character is also coming out – a hint of tobacco or leather can be found at the end of the sip. The mouthfeel is dry, which is to style, and the aftertase remains a nice balance of sweetness and pepper.
The take-home message from this beer is not to give up hope if an aging beer seems to be going off-track. Not all aged flavours appear at the same time, meaning the beer can become unbalanced for a time, but it can – and often does – come back. Sadly, I’m down to just a few more bottles of this beer, so this aging experiment will soon end…

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