The Highs and Lows of Cellaring Beer

SlyFox Raspberry Reserve  Speedway Stout 2011

Shortly after I bought my first home eight years ago I started cellaring beer.  I had heard of the practice and it seemed like the perfect way to expand my interests in rare and unusual beers by making some of the best beers of today potentially even better.

First off… I am no expert on aging beers.  That being said there are a few rules I work around and they have worked for me.

  • The storage space should be cool. My basement is quite cool year round and never gets above 60 degrees.
  • It should be dark. Beer is as photosensitive as an albino in the tropics. I use wine boxes and some old blankets.
  • Choose boozy beers. 8% ABV and above.
  • Hops are fragile and their floral, dank, piney, resin, citrus and/or tropical flavors degrade quickly. This will make you sad.  Pick something else.
  • I like to generally work with dark beers… Imperial stouts, barley-wines, Belgian strong ales, sour beers, Flanders reds work but so can Triples and Quads.
  • Bottle conditioned beers and those injected with wild yeast or Brettanomyces tend to offer good results.
  • Try to run a vertical. Age a couple bottles from each year and then try them together to get an idea of how the beer is developing during its long slumber.  This is great for learning about when a beer reaches “maturity” and when its over the hill.
  • Experiment… some will work and some will not. Failure is an option. Some will be sublime and some will be ready to hit the drain.  It’s a crapshoot; get over it.

I ran into that the dichotomy of that last bullet point this past week.  First, I opened a bottle of SlyFox’s Black Raspberry Reserve from 2010.  This bottle conditioned fruit beer weighs in at 8% ABV, is loaded with raspberries and is brewed in Phoenixville, PA.  I first had this beer fresh and I found it overly sweet and lacking sufficient complexity in flavor.  It was a little on the thin side but its effervescence made for nice mouthfeel.  It poured a deep rich purple with a slightly pink head. Flavors were only slightly tart and that was drowning in sweet sugars and candied raspberry.  I thought the beer promising if only the tartness could be amplified, the sweetness muted and some of the other potential fruity flavors given a chance to come forward. So in the cellar it went for nearly five full years.

Upon opening the cork and caged 750 mL bottle and pouring it in to a snifter I could tell the long rest had made significant changes.  This beer previously had a luminance about it.  The color had clearly moved towards a darker more brownish hue; not immediately off putting but certainly different.  The bubbly effervescent liquid was now flat and thin.  The aroma once of raspberry jam was now only a whiff of its former self.  It was bland at the front with no discernable finish. The beer lacked any real flavor. The beer was boring.  Age had not been kind this beer.  What was once a modestly good beer, with what I had hoped to be great potential, was lost for good.

The second bottle I opened was a 2011 Speedway Stout by AleSmith out of San Diego California. AleSmith makes a number of very, very well regarded brews and is a company that I trust completely with my hard earned beer money.  When fresh this imperial stout pours a pitch-black with chocolate and coffee aroma’s dominating the nose.  The taste of coffee and chocolate are dominate but do not hide the subtle toffee, caramel, vanilla and dark sweet fruits notes.  These all come through thanks to the fine and abundant carbonation. This beer is silky smooth and very easy to drink even at 12% ABV.

My 2011 bottle after four years of hibernation showed significant and welcome change.  The beer pours slightly flatter with the previously firm dark brown head disappearing quickly and only providing minimal lacing at the edge.  The creamy mouth feel was replaced with the smooth silk like texture of a fine cordial.  With the coffee notes completely out of the way after its four year slumber the beer now focused on the roasted malts.  Toffee, caramel, and vanilla are all here in abundance but never over powering.  The 12% alcohol is more evident but never lends itself to a burn or unpleasant astringency and merely invites more rationed sipping; a wise credit to my patience.  The finish is as long as ever but instead of coffee now evokes the flavors of softly roasted malts and a hint of plums.  The beer was and remains complex and is never boring.  I am glad to have two more bottle to see what another five to ten years does.

Speedway Stout and cellaring your beers both get the Bearcat Seal of Approval.

Beer as Abstraction and Comedic Repetition

If you ever had the pleasure of driving through Elizabethtown, PA you likely got a whiff of what are two of the biggest industries in Central PA; chocolate and dairies.  One is decidedly more pleasant than the other.  On breezy days the roasted chocolate aroma can waft for miles around from the M&M Mars plant.  It is always welcome and inviting.  Central PA has an abundance of chocolatiers. These include M&M, Hershey and preferred by me, Wilbur in Lititz.

In order to supply these plants there are plenty of dairy cows in the area.  Driving around Lancaster county back roads gives you a real sense of just how big the dairy industry is. They are everywhere.

These two facts makes Lancaster Brewing Company’s Double Chocolate Milk Stout a great representative for its namesake. I procured a 22 oz. bomber and poured the dark brown opaque beer into a snifter glass which brought forth a light brown to tan head that laced the glass lightly.  Aromas of bitter chocolate like a 70% cacao dark chocolate bar are accompanied by a soft sweetness and is inviting.  Lancaster Brewing created this with cacao nibs and it is evident with every sip.  This beer is chocolate through-and-through.

It has a velvety texture in the mouthfeel and is thick without the greasiness of some imperial stouts.  The lactose sugars are evident in the finish along with hints of caramel and roasted malts.  The finish is long, of again, cacao.  The beer tastes of Hershey’s syrup but has more of a refined chocolate expression in the long lasting and pleasant finish. This beer is beyond smooth in texture and mouthfeel with 6.8% ABV that is never evident or intrusive.

Deep, dark chocolate again and again given as a single note played over and over. But it works in the same way Portlandia got cacao to work as an example of repetition as comedy. If you like chocolate, especially semi-sweet or bitter chocolate you will love this beer.  The chocolate notes are divided up as you drink. In that the front it is sweeter and along the lines of milk or semi-sweet chocolate. The more bitter and refined dark cacao flavors come in the finish to wrap things up with a flourish. It’s dynamic yet monochromatic not unlike Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White.  This libation is not deconstructing what it is to be “beer” as monochromatic art can change both the concept of abstraction and art but it does let you explore the complexities of doubling down on a singular flavor profile.

Double Chocolate Milk Stout is an excellent dessert beer.  As local strawberries are soon in season, I would highly recommend this as a pairing or do as I plan to the next time and drop a scoop of vanilla ice cream in for a beer float.  It can be found on tap or in 12 oz bottles, but I would spring for the 22 oz. bomber and split it with a friend; it’s just right.

Lancaster Brewing Company’s Double Chocolate Milk Stout gets the Bearcat Seal of Approval.