When the Righteous Brothers told us that time can do so much, they might as well have been singing about beer. Some brewers recoil at the mere suggestion of putting away their hard-brewed work for a long stretch in the cellar, since aging does dramatic things to a beer. Consider an IPA, whose fragrance will wither and wilt after just months of solitary confinement. Most brewers want us to drink fresh, before all the aromatics they crafted so carefully in a beer can vanish.
But do they vanish, or just turn into something better? Some beer advocates are embracing the effects on a beer long stored in a dark, cool place. Crack the cap of a dusty bottle, and you might find that the beer within has developed complexity, with thick, heavy flavors and a brawny deliciousness. In fact, most brewers stash a few bottles for special occasions, for better or worse.
SFoodie stumbled onto just such an occasion a couple of weeks ago at Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, at a tasting of old beers drawn from the brewery's "library." Lined up on the bar in the upstairs loft (you've been there if you've ever taken the Lagunitas brewery tour), the beers included full vertical arrangements of its staple high-alcohol brown ales: Olde Gnarly Wine, Hairy Eyeball, and Brown Shugga'.
We started on the Olde Gnarly Wine barleywine, and we started young. Just weeks out of the tank, this 11 percent brew is a hop and malt bomb, with both forces drenching the palate at once and hops as bright and brilliant as those in any IPA.
But after a year, Olde Gnarly Wine evolved remarkably. The maltiness had developed into a thicker, chewier flavor, and oh, how the hops had mellowed into a very satisfying balance.
Finally, we tasted the 2007 Olde Gnarly Wine, in which there was no indication that Lagunitas brewer Jeremy Marshall had ever leaned over his brew kettle and inhaled a head full of hop scents, or called his assistants over to savor the billowing aromas of Washington state's hopyards, or praised his diligence in securing the freshest hops of the crop ― we smelled none. Instead, the beer was thick and sticky, like maple syrup and caramel, and deep, dark flavors that seemed to have spent years crawling to the surface vying to be tasted.
Hairy Eyeball, a strong miscellaneous brown ale of 9 percent alcohol, came next. Straight from the 2011 release, the beer tasted like Cocoa Puffs and chocolate-covered malted-milk balls, offering just enough zesty hop aromas to indicate this beer was fresh.
The 2010 had developed a caramel and butterscotch quality, its chocolate flavors thickening into something more like fudge. This seemed to be its peak, whereas the 2006 Hairy Eyeball had a tartness amidst its creamy yet fading flavors ― a sign of oxidation and the slow breakdown that eventually can be termed "spoilage."
We tasted Brown Shugga' last. Our palates were fatiguing, but this is among our very favorite beers and we noted its sweet, crisp, youthful aromatics in the December 2010 vintage. But time tamed the hoppy character in the batch from December 2008, and this one delivered a rich, complex mouthful of maple, molasses, and toffee. Sadly, the 2006 had gone over the hill. It was all malt and a bit one-dimensional, dusty, and beginning to taste like cardboard.
Jeremy Marshall once told us that old beers all taste the same. That's not far from the truth, but observing the evolution of an aging beer through the eyeglass of a vertical tasting is an experience we won't soon forget. Unfortunately, aged beers are rare - you have to stash the bottles for years, and in a commercial situation that means sacrificing revenue. Few stores carry them. City Beer Store does sometimes, and Toronado opens up its back storage chamber for special-event sales of library beers, but the best way may be to hide beers at home. This involves its own unique challenges, what with roommates stealing them and your own late-night plunderings. Aged beers don't always get old.
It's worth a try, though. Mark the bottles with the date of purchase ― or when the beer was brewed ― and bank them for the future. A few beers worth aging:
• North Coast Old Stock Ale: One source told us he had tasted an Old Stock more than 10 years old and that it was "phenomenal."
• Lagunitas Brown Shugga': Not one to age for many years, this one is worth stashing because of the head-spinning improvement that overtakes the beer in just one year.
• Thomas Hardy's Ale: A legendary beer for aging, this one was discontinued in 2008. That gives you a three-year start.
• Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale: Former SFoodie blogger Brian Yaeger told us about tasting a Bigfoot vintage from the 1980s that knocked his socks off. Age a few and see how those hops vanish!