Annual New Year's Day Tasting (2010)

Another year is upon us, and that means another Annual New Year's Day Tasting for my family.  Overall, the tasting went great, but there were a few mistakes made that we can look forward to cleaning up next year.  In this article, we're going to talk a little bit about cellaring beer--the whats, whens, and whys.  First though, let's go through this years tasting list:

  • Abyss (2007), Deschutes Brewing, Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
  • Abyss (2008), Deschutes Brewing, Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
  • Abyss (2009), Deschutes Brewing, Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
  • Auld Battle Axe, Laurelwood Brewing Co., Scotch Ale
  • Black Butte XX, Deschutes Brewing, Bourbon Barrel Aged Porter
  • Black Butte XXI, Deschutes Brewing, Bourbon Barrel Aged Porter
  • Black Xantus, Nectar Ales, Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout
  • Bourbon Barrel Belgian-Style Quad, Boulavard Brewing, Barrel Aged Quadrupel
  • Dark Horizon II, Nogne o, Unclassified
  • Double Alt (25th Anniversary), Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.Double Alt
  • Mirror Mirror, Deschutes Brewery, Barleywine
  • Moose and Squirrel, Laurelwood Brewing, Russian Imperial Stout
  • Old Boardhead (2007), Full Sail Brewing, Barleywine Style Ale
  • Old Rasputin XII, North Coast Brewing, Russian Imperial Stout
  • Olde Reliable, Laurelwood Brewing, Barleywine
  • Paradox (Speyside), BrewDog, Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
  • 2008 Stormwatchers, Pelican Brewery, Barleywine
  • XII, Firestone Walker, Barrel Aged Blend
  • XIII, Firestone Walker, Barrel Aged Blend
  • Yeti Oak Aged Espresso, Great Divide Brewing Co., Imperial Stout
Annual New Year's Day Tasting (2010)
Deschutes Abyss.

Malty beers with a low hop profile and a high ABV are best for aging, so it's no surprise that this list is populated by some heavy, malty beers.  Hops are used for three primary purposes in beer: bitterness, flavor, and aroma.  If a beer is based on its hop profile, all of this resiny goodness will disappear over time, leaving you with a strange mess.  Imagine your favorite Imperial IPA.  Now imagine it with no hops.  Since beers like Stouts and Porters are low on the flavor and aroma hop scale, they make good aging candidates because this loss of hops does not adversely change the character of the beer.  However, since hops are used for bittering as well, an aged beer will lose a little bit of this bitter bite, causing the final product to reside on the sweeter side.

Why age a beer in the first place?  Complex beers have many layers attained from several parts of the beer making process.  From roasted malts and intricate grain bills, to variations in yeast type or fermentation with fruit, beers can become complex in the brewing phase alone.  Add on barrel aging or blending, and the final product can be a multi-layered showpiece.  When some of these beers are released, they can be rather untamed: too bitter, overpowering alcohol, overwhelming bourbon flavor.  It's possible that any of the beers aspects are out of proportion with the rest of the beer.  This does not mean that the beer is bad, but people may describe it as too young, too hot, or that it simply needs some age.  Aging a beer like this can transform it immensely.  The biggest change you'll see is that these beers mellow with some time, softening the sharp edges, creating a subtler beer.  The hotness of the alcohol dies down, fresh bitterness softens, and that overwhelming smack of bourbon now resides softly in the mix.

Aging beer is not complicated, but it depends on three things:

  1. Darkness: keep beer away from sunlight.  Put the beer bottle in a (clean) sock.  Put the (clean) sock in a closed box.  Put the box under a black towel.  Put that box somewhere dark (basement, a closet, or that room with no windows that your neighbor doesn't know about).  Well, it doesn't have to be that drastic, but light is terrible for beer and will devastate your aging process, turning your masterpiece into a drain pour.
  2. Cellar Temperature: 55 °F is ideal.  Fluctuating temperature does not do a beer any favors.  A small difference through the seasons isn't that big of a deal, but you'll want to stay away from repeating anything near several fridge to room temperature cycles.
  3. Self control: if you ain't got it, your beers won't make it to the cellar.
Annual New Year's Day Tasting (2010)
Boulevard Brewing Bourbon Barrel Quad.

With a total of 20 beers for our tasting, most weighing in around 12%, we had a lot of work to do. We paired the verticals up, and tried to weave in a couple of different styles along the way. The tasting was divided into 4 rounds of 5 beers over two days. We thought about squeezing into one day, but everyone was scared by that idea. Really scared. In the end, we had an odd mix of styles that didn't always reflect well on the beer. For example, after the three year Abyss vertical, we decided on the Bourbon Barrel Quad as a "palette cleanser" before hitting the Old Rasputin XII. Well, this wasn't as much a decision as it was a forced hand. We had so many giant beers and mismatching styles, that a perfect solution was hard to come by. I highly anticipated tasting this Quad, but sandwiched in between a whole bunch of barrel aged Imperial Stouts was not the way to showcase its qualities. A little more forethought into the tasting groups would have helped, but sitting there in front of all those bottles, we couldn't delay any longer.

  • For the '07/'08/'09 Abyss vertical, the 2008 was the favorite.  The blend of oak, licorice, chocolate, roasted malts, and bitterness struck a delicious balance, while the 2007 had faded into obscurity with all aspects falling on the far side of subtle.  It wasn't that the '07 was bad, it was just lifeless next to its brethren.  While I like the 2009 right now, next to the 2008 it did seem a little young.
  • The same was true for the '08/'09 Black Butte Reserve: The older beer achieved a phenomenal balance and smoothed out over time.  The '09, while immensely drinkable (I was only able to cellar 2 out of 12), was a bit rougher around the edges.
  • Barleywines: We didn't make it to the Stormwatchers, but the whole table loved 2007 Old Boardhead and 2007 Olde Reliable.  The affects of aging was most prevalent with these beers.  Barleywines tend to polarize people into the "love it" or "hate it" camps.  They are big, sweet, often taste of dark fruits, and can be very un-beer like.  These tastes were still noticeable in the aged beers, but they were more refined and quiet, turning everyone at the table into Barleywine fans.  This was especially surprising from my father, who usually finds this style too overpowering.
  • Another favorite was the Moose and Squirrel.  After almost two years and at only 8% ABV, I wasn't sure how this one would hold up.  In fact, I liked this beer so much at release time, I drank them all.  Luckily, my brother had stashed one away.  Again, same story: the aging had smoothed out the rough edges.

As indicated on the list above, two beers didn't make it to the table: Stormwatchers and Auld Battle Axe.  We had to throw in the towel before prying these open.  It was a simple matter of too many beers and too little time.  The Stormwatchers made it back to Portland, but only briefly.  This was another of my highly anticipated beers and I had the choice of hiding it back in the cellar for another day or finally getting a chance to drink it.  It's not in the cellar.  I'm sure I'll think back at next years tasting and wonder what it would have been like with another year on it, but self-control doesn't always win out for me.

Check out the rest of the photos here.