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.

A Beer as Prologue For My Love of Craft Beer

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About dozen years ago, when I first moved to Harrisburg from Pittsburgh I lived in downtown on North 2nd Street. I visited the bar scene along my street three to four nights a week. I worked at a beer distributor as a second job a couple weeknights and on weekends. Back then I considered myself above the average beer drinker because I preferred Guinness and spoke well of Yuengling Porter. Drinking dark beer alone a differentiator and sign of my good taste.

Then one cold afternoon more than a decade ago I wandered into Troegs Brewing Company’s tasting room; the one that used to be in Harrisburg. I had a Hopback, a Pale Ale or maybe even a Troeganator… it blew my mind. Here was beer of a completely different nature. It was flavorful in a way I did not know it could be. It was a revelation in every sense of the word.

Shortly there after, seeking out other beers of high regard I stepped into Appalachian Brewing Company (ABC) on Cameron Street. Their beers were sweeter and more approachable but no less interesting to my plebe beer tasting palate. Here again was beer brewed with care and respect. ABC’s then brewer, now owner/brewmaster of Roundabout Brewing in Pittsburgh, was my neighbor. This along with drinking regularly at Troegs helped expand my interest in craft beers.

Years later after I had given up on corporate beer and became fully committed to craft brews, a couple friends and I discovered Al’s of Hampden. This was back when he had six tables and maybe twenty or so taps. Here my world opened to styles of beer that I couldn’t have found elsewhere… Saisons, Black IPAs (remember when they were the new hotness), West Coast and triple IPAs and “What the hell is Brettanomyces?”

So last night at the Harrisburg Beer Week kickoff party, I had a beer that in many ways celebrated not just the region but my own journey to craft beer. (717) Collaboration Ale by ABC, Pizza Boy Brewing (Al’s of Hampden), and Troegs Brewing Company is my history with beer in a can. While Sara Bozich and the ladies at Stouts and Stilettos kicked off what took a ton of work to birth, I was thinking about my decade long journey with beer and the Harrisburg area; the two are woven together.

(717) Collaboration Ale is a strange beer that is brewed for a wonderfully strange area code. The area code where it gets its name holds a company town where government is the company. It is also home to some of the most fertile farmland in the country. The area has city life and Amish carriages all at once. Just as the area code is a hybrid, so is this beer. It has the character of noble hops like an IPA with the range of flavors of a Farmhouse Ale/Saison. This beer is hoppy in the front with a pronounced sweetness while providing the long dry finish and Chardonnay tang of a farmhouse brew.

Hybrid beers by their very nature are complex but this one is just uncanny in its depth. It starts with a billowy and long lasting head from a vigorous pour that provides a welcome yeast and peppery aroma along with some sweet and sour flavors in the nose. The slightly amber and completely clear and clean appearance are inviting and representative of the exacting standards these brewers demand.

The flavor profile provides for a bit of the honey sweetness up front as is typical for ABC beers in my opinion. The middle is all hops with a generous Nugget hop profile that is all Troegs. The finish is long and dry with a proper white wine and slightly sour notes clearly attributed to Pizza Boy Brewing’s history of sublime sours. The ability to definitively pick out the distinct characteristics of the three brew houses is truly unique for this collaboration. This beer is incredibly impressive on multiple levels.

The 7.17% ABV ale is easy drinking and sits comfortably in either a standard pint glass to be casually imbibed or savored in a snifter quietly with reflection. 

It is available on draft during Harrisburg Beer Week at Al’s of Hampden, ABC, and Troegs and will be released in 16 oz cans on Monday, April 27th at distributors in the area. If you get the chance, I highly recommend picking some up.

(717) Collaboration Ale gets the Bearcat Seal of Approval.

Friday Beer News Link Dump

Today officially launches the first Harrisburg Beer Week (HBW).  After a ton of work by Sara Bozich, Colleen, and Chelsie we can finally see Tierney’s initial dream come to fruition.  Best of luck to all the organizers and I hope that Harrisburg River Rescue brings in a boatload of donations.  I am doing my part, you should too.

I will be attending the HBW VIP Kickoff Event tonight at Appalachian Brewing Company thanks to the generosity of Merlot Mike from Hershey Vineyards and Brewery. I am very much looking forward to having a glass of (717) the collaboration beer between tonight’s host (ABC), Pizza Boy Brewing, and Troegs. I am sure it is going to be a great event to start a great week for the city.  Expect a beer review of (717) tomorrow right here at BearcatOnBeer.com.

Speaking of (717), it will be available for purchase in 16 oz cans throughout the Harrisburg Area beginning on Monday, April 27, 2015.  Be sure to pick this one up early as I am sure it will sell out very quickly.

Really quickly, here are some of what I think are HBW’s can’t miss events:

April 25th — Victory Firkin at Brewhouse Grill (Victory rarely does firkins so this is great)

April 26th – Battle of the Homebrew Clubs at Federal Taphouse Harrisburg (ticketed event)

April 28th – Tired Hands Brewing Company on Tap at Al’s of Hampden (Tired Hands Beer!)

April 28th – Tapping of Saison 28 by ZerØday Brewing and Brewed in the Burg Screening at Midtown Cinema

April 30th – Moo-Duck Brewery Tour and Meet the Brewer Event at Moo-Duck in Elizabethtown

May 1st    – Pennsylvania Women in Craft Beer Conference (Ticketed Event)

May 2nd   – The Little Big Beer Fest at ABC (Ticketed Event)

In other PA Craft Beer News, this week New Belgium officially announced it was entering the PA market and has signed on a dozen distributors including locals, Ace Beer Distributors and W&L Sales; both are HBW sponsors too.

Yesterday, the Trib in Pittsburgh has a great story on women in craft beer, its a great write up.

Finally, Jason Notte on the brilliant Stan Hieronymus’ argument that craft beer loyalist are fighting the wrong battle.  Always remember what Steve Jobs said you should be “skating to where the puck is going not where it has been.”

Have a happy Harrisburg Beer Week everyone.  Be sure to follow along on Twitter @BearcatOnBeer and on Facebook if you are still into that thing.

Cheers!

[Insert Name] Coffee Porter/Stout

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The craft beer business is fraught with trends that take root en masse. This has brought us an abundance of hoppy west coast style IPAs, bourbon barrel aged everything, and more recently the gose and sour beers surge.

This is not to say that I don’t like these beers, just that the craft beer culture seems to drift together and glom onto trendy styles with an aggressive stickiness.

The one thing that the above-mentioned styles provide when done right by all the various brewers is that they provide for iteration and variation. The distinctions that provide for the desire to try a various brewer’s take on a style and compare and contrast.   You know the whole reason we hunt for new brews and discuss the ones we like and don’t like.

This is a good thing.

But there is one trend that has completely burned me out… coffee flavored beers. There was a time years ago that coffee stouts were a subtle rarity. The proper bitterness of cold coffee flavors along with the roasted malts and creaminess of a stout just merged and provided the drink with a new level of complexity.

But eventually this trend turned south for me. It is now almost necessary for each brewery to brew a coffee stout or porter. Give the people what they want…I guess. This resulted in each brewer turning to specifically sourced and locally roasted coffee beans for their coffee beer. Iteration and variation became just a sourcing of beans.

When I first had a bomber of Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel it was a revelation; like many of Mikkeller’s beers. Pizza Boy Brewing’s Sunny Side Up (Little Amps!) Stout is so good I have considered it an all world quality stout since it first arrived. I still order that one when given the chance. I like coffee beers, but they are getting commoditized; by and large one is indistinguishable from the rest.

So that leads me to The Brewer’s Art and their Zeke’s Coffee Porter. This beer was perfectly fine. Rich coffee flavor, a proper bitterness, while slightly flat and thin in the body it was a good beer. Nothing about it was offending or strange in anyway; just like the dozens and dozens of other coffee beers I have had over the years. What was unique about this beer? The beans. Really? That is what they are selling?

Maybe this is a problem with me… As obsessive as I am about beer, is exactly how little I care about my coffee. Coffee is binary. It is either strong or weak.

Strong Coffee = Good Coffee

Weak Coffee = Shit Coffee

The artisanal coffee bean roasters offering specially sourced and carefully roasted coffee beans that are then ground with the care and precision reserved for pharmaceuticals and finally brewed at precisely 188º just seem overwrought. I mean the coffee at McDonalds is only a buck. Yeah its burnt to hell but… oh, God please don’t judge me!

So after 500 words where am I? Well… This post is just like coffee beers, overdone and not nearly as interesting as they used to be.

Say Hello to ZerØday Brewing Company

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Yesterday, provided the grand opening of ZerØday Brewing Company as the newest local brewery in Central PA. It was an opening with fanfare and well attended by the mayor and a Storm Trooper for the traditional ribbon cutting.

Over the past year I have attended three different opening days for local breweries (Columbia Kettle Works, Moo-Duck Brewing, and ZerØday) and without a doubt this one was the best on multiple levels.

I arrived well after the noon opening ceremonies but right into the thick of a very busy opening day.  While the crowd was heavy, the husband and wife proprietors, Brandalynn and Theo Armstrong, made sure everything ran with exceptional smoothness.

Upon arrival, I was able to quickly claim a corner spot near both the bar and the entrance.  I was very promptly greeted by a friendly bartender and plied with my first beer; no wait.  The service was impeccable.  It was hard to tell this was their opening day as the service and atmosphere made for an exceptional time free of any issues.  Theo Armstrong (the brewer) worked as bar back during my visit and made sure fresh clean glassware was always at the reach while his small but very busy team of bartenders served up his fine libations.  He also clearly took the time to talk with patrons and to politely accept congratulations from many happy customers.  Brandalynn worked the door greeting people warmly when she was not busily making sure everyone’s needs were met.

In the lead up to this opening I watched the Armstrongs via the modern wonders of social media put together their dream and I was a little worried about the volume of orange paint they were splashing about in the prospective taproom.  But the look of the place is fantastic.  The taproom is very nicely appointed and while very orange, is in no way off putting.  It has clean lines and is clearly well thought out all around.  Just a beautiful place to brew and drink a pint.

The beers were impressive even beyond first batch/smaller scale brewing standards.  ZerØday opened with five offerings on tap: Firstborn (Dry Stout), Cheap Date (American Blonde), Wits End (Belgian Inspired Witbier), Zeroday IPA – Ep.1, Dolce Vita (Chocolate and Hazelnut Sweet Stout).

My first beer was Dolce Vita.  After hearing via twitter about the soft opening this was the beer I knew I had to try.  It did not disappoint.  Served on nitro it has a silky smooth mouthfeel with a creamy luscious head built to last.  The aroma is like Nutella only somehow more inviting.  Then as it warms up the finish becomes longer lasting and deeper with a proper hazelnut and creamy chocolate that just makes this beer.  Very sweet, it would pair wonderfully with strawberries after a fine dinner.  If there is any room for improvement here… it’s that the beer was served way too cold. Dolce Vita shows off its flavors as it warms up. This beer was exceptional and is worthy of a visit.  Dolce Vita gets the Bearcat Seal of Approval.

As for the other offerings: Cheap Date goes down easy like she should and will be great for hot days when you are looking for a session beer.  Wits End was nicely constructed with a proper Belgian yeast and bitterness but lacked a peppery bite that I like in Witbier.  Zeroday IPA was clearly advertised as the first iteration. It was good but at 7.4% ABV, I was expecting more flavor and aroma from the hops and more body; just a tad thin. Firstborn was my least favorite of the offering but was still an exceptional stout.  When I say it was my least favorite its almost unfair because it was rock solid.

ZerØday’s beers were all good… and were frankly great when you consider this is the first time operating on the brand new brewing system.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  This would be excellent work for even a well-established small town brewery. The ceiling here is really high for future batches and I am sure they will not disappoint.

ZerØday Brewing Company gets the Bearcat Seal of Approval

Harrisburg Beer Week

HBW Harrisburg gets a bad rap around here by the people that live in the area. “West Shore” white people refuse to cross water and would rather fight snarling traffic nightmares within a commercialized suburb. Harrisburg downtown can’t get out of its own way sometimes to succeed as it should. No better example of that than the hostile government boondoggle that is parking. It’s easy for those outside of Harrisburg to think of it as second rate when the most visible tenants (politicians) in this city are at best second rate and have a surprising number of outright criminals… but that is another post for another failed blog. There is one thing this area has that is first rate… Beer. From the established heavy hitter (Troegs), to the sublime upstart (Intangible Ales), to the spunky local (Columbia Kettle Works), we have an abundance of quality craft beer options here in the center of the Commonwealth. This is a long way of saying, its about time Harrisburg got its own Beer Week. In a couple weeks, Harrisburg will be holding its inaugural Beer Week and the timing and the planning appear to be perfect. Harrisburg and the Central PA area should be proud of its working man libations. I personally will be attending as many of the 120 currently scheduled events as possible. If you are reading this post I would expect the same from you. Celebrating and supporting local beer is critical to ensuring that the brewers continue to thrive in this area. It’s about time we celebrate our diverse and excellent craft brewers in the area. The girls at Stouts and Stilettos and Sara Bozich are putting in a ton of work to get this off the ground. ABC, Pizza Boy and Troegs are throwing their collective weight behind this endeavor right now by brewing a fascinating hybrid beer, (717). This crazy brew will debut one month from now at the kick off event. It will also be sold in 16 oz cans throughout the namesake area code. I can’t wait to get my hands on some. But this is not just about getting together to share our favorite social lubricant. Harrisburg Beer Week has a beneficiary in the Harrisburg River Rescue and Emergency Services. This means that your dedication to social drinking also supports a social good. I reached out to Tierney Pomone of StoutsandStilettos.com and she was, as always, kind enough to give me her thoughts:

“I’m really excited about the PA Women in Beer Conference on 5/1. 4 women who work with/for/own PA breweries are on the panel with a lead q&a, beer from Gift Horse in York, food from LBC. I really love supporting women in beer and think it’s important to have this open panel.
Each woman has a different role at their respective brewery so it’s going to be a unique opportunity to really engage.”

There are lots of events and they can all be found at HarrisburgBeerWeek.com. The week will close with The Little Big Beers Fest at ABC where local brewers will be offering small batch beers (little) that are heavy hitters (big). I already have my ticket. If you are going, I look forward to seeing you there and discussing all the great things about our local brews. Harrisburg Beer Week emphatically gets the Bearcat Seal of Approval

/Updated 3/10/15 to reflect the hard work of Ms. Sara Bozich who I regretfully left out when discussing the efforts to create the Harrisburg Beer Week.  Apologies Sara.  I owe you a beer.