It’s not just wines that can benefit from a few years in the cellar. Nigel Huddleston takes a look at why aged beers could bring complexity and interest, not to mention profit, to your list
As more top-end bars and restaurants succumb to the charms of packaged beers with flavour and character, cellaring bottles to sell a few years down the line starts to have more commercial potential.
There’s no reason why aged beers shouldn’t have a tactical place on a drinks list alongside vintage port or older malt whiskies – like both, the right beer aged for the proper time has the ability to astonish and delight.
Maturing beers in the bottle doesn’t work for everything, but then neither does it for wine. Lighter, less hardy brews that carry one-year shelf lives have them for a reason – because, by then, they’ll start to become stale and the flavour will start to fall apart.
But there are a sizeable minority of beers that are brewed to develop more character after anything from a couple of years to a couple of decades in the bottle.
Belgian ales, saisons, barley wine, old ales, lambics, gueuze and imperial stouts all take on new shades of flavour and subtlety of texture when they’re allowed to live a little before being released into the world. The bière de garde style literally translates as ‘beer for keeping’, lest anyone think the French know only about the secret of ageing wine.
Some beers take on new shades of
flavour and subtlety when allowed
to live a little before being released
While maturing wine is often referred to as resting, it’s quite correct to talk about beer living in the bottle, because the way beer develops with age is largely due to the presence of yeast performing a secondary bottle-fermentation. Plenty of mainstream bottled ales are bottle-conditioned in this way, though not all bottle-conditioned beers are suited to long periods of ageing.
As a basic rule, the more fermentable stuff there is in the beer, the more there is for the yeast to work on and change its character with age, which means the beers with most ageing potential tend to be heavier, stronger and among those displaying the most complexity of flavour in the first place. Lighter, less complex beers will generally show signs of flabbiness or oxidise much more quickly. It’s a bit like the difference between Muscadet and Montrachet.
Best-before dates on most lagers will rightly flag up a six to 12 months shelf life, and venues are well advised to stick to those. But best-before dates can also provide clues to the ageing potential of beers. Many Belgian Trappist ales are bottled with five-year shelf lives (see box on the next page), as are English vintage and old ales that have been brewed to improve with age. Some lambics and gueuze beers have even longer maturation periods built into their labelling policy.
Best-before dates on any foodstuff, which beer is classified as, legally, are a guide to quality rather than safety, and, for higher-strength and quality beers, some of the rules are better stretched. Most beers will eventually deteriorate with age, but some in those categories mentioned above will continue to mature long past the age on the bottle – although their appeal does, admittedly, become more academic than commercial as time goes on.
BEER OR WINE?
Occasional tastings of some bottles from the Bass archives in Burton-on-Trent have revealed rich madeira, port and sherry flavours in beers that have been ageing since the late-19th century.
More compact versions of those flavours can be found in some old ales and vintage ales aged for shorter lengths of time. As a general rule, the right beers that have been cellar-aged in the bottle will develop a softer mouthfeel, greater complexity, more finesse, more subtle acidity, like wine, and – unlike wine – riper fruit.
Beers will develop a softer
mouthfeel, greater complexity,
more finesse, more acidity
That means, on the face of it, that beers that have been cellar-aged are among the less commercial beers around, but the top end of the on-trade is where there is the most potential, in terms of higher ticket prices and marketing around food matching. For beers that have been aged, it’s imperative that bars and restaurants give their customers some clues about what the beers are and how they’re supposed to drink them. Venues need to get beyond the conventional token mention of a few brand names for beer at the bottom of the wine list, and give useful information about the flavours that can be unlocked and how they might best be enjoyed. Some of the beers that have featured here retail in specialist take-home outlets for as much as £4 a bottle and clearly offer even better margin potential for the right on-trade outlets.
Corks: do you take them lying down?
Some aged or age-able beers are packaged in bottles with cork stoppers rather than traditional crowns. Beer-buff opinion is divided on the best way to store such bottles. Some prefer laying them down (like wine) to keep the cork moist and prevent oxygen entering the bottle. Others argue that this merely increases the chances of oxidisation by exposing a greater surface area of the beer.
It’s also argued that it prevents the yeast sediment sinking to the bottom of the bottle, increasing the risk of haze on pouring. This, of course, can be solved merely by allowing a bottle to stand upright for a time before pouring, though admittedly this is a more predictable need in a domestic rather than commercial environment.
In our tasting, the with-cork Gale’s Prize Old Ale was from upright-stored stock and the beer did seem a little flat, although with no obvious vinegary oxidisation on the taste.
As a certain level of carbonation is desirable in most beers, it seems logical that keeping the cork damp can be as important in keeping carbon dioxide in the bottle as oxygen out. So, as with wine, horizontal is probably best.
When I were a lad…
Six venerably aged beers tell Nigel Huddleston why things were so much better when they were first bottled
6.2% abv, Belgium. RRP £1.69/33cl. James Clay, 01422 377560
One of the few beers to display a ‘bottled on’ date – essentially a wine-style vintage – this Trappist beer is a world classic. The brewery has the confidence to make only one beer, which comes in a teardrop bottle with art deco label, and which is packed with tropical fruit flavours, a spicy hopped edge, wine-like acidity and tangy mouthfeel. The 2009 (drink by 2013) has the excitement and vibrancy of a ride in Ferrari F1 car, but the 2008 adds the luxurious trappings that go with the road version, with more elegant fruit, a softer feel and the emergence of more vinous qualities.
9% abv, Belgium. RRP £2.20/33cl. James Clay, 01422 377560
Another Trappist beer, and this monastery’s most deceptively strong brew. The 2009 is already in circulation, but seek out the 2008 for levelled-off hop bitterness, more subtle mixed fruit and a harmonious finish. Like Orval, its balanced acidity makes it ripe for pairing with the cheese plate, particularly flavoursome hard cheeses such as manchego.
GALE’S PRIZE OLD ALE
9% abv, UK. RRP £2.99/500ml. Fuller, Smith & Turner, 020 8996 2000
A complex British ale with heady Dundee cake-like mixed fruit, chocolate, cinder toffee and distinctive liquorice notes. Tasting the 2005 after the 2006 reveals a smoother mouthfeel with less bitterness on the initial sip. There’s also the whiff of freshly buffed shoe leather about it, and softer, longer, warming fruit. This beer would stand up to a heady chocolate/coffee dessert and a pungent, strong-cheese course, as well as richer meats and sauces.
FULLER’S VINTAGE ALE 1997
8.5% abv, UK. RRP £1.99/500ml (2009 vintage). Fuller, Smith & Turner, 020 8996 2000
Crack open a bottle of this annual numbered-bottle release after a dozen years and the heady aroma of molasses, dried fruit and honey comes rushing up to smack you in the face. The beer is chestnut brown with a luscious mouthfeel and a restrained hop bitterness balanced by mellow mixed fruit and chocolate, with the hops reappearing on the finish. Showing no signs of tiredness and could easily take a few more years yet.
FULLER’S HANSSENS ARTISANAAL OUDE GUEUZE
6% abv, Belgium. RRP £3.09/37.5cl. Beer Paradise, 01423 359533
No ‘brewed-on’ dates but two sell-by dates on separate production runs indicating good-for-ageing until 2024 and 2027. Gueuze is a blend of old and young lambic beers, the Belgian style brewed through spontaneous or natural fermentation, working on yeast occurring in the brewery environs rather than cultivated. The style is noted for its sour flavour evident here in both ages, but there’s a vast difference between the two. The younger has a champagne-like fizz and a sulphurous and citrus nose, while the older has developed a more bready character. The younger beer is tart on the palate, but the extra three years softens the tone, producing more rounded flavours, less harsh acidity and a flint dry finish. With gueuze, it seems, the longer the better.
JW LEES HARVEST ALE 2005
11.5% abv, UK. RRP £35/24x275ml (2007 vintage). Greengate Brewery, 0161 643 2478
Brewed to last for a decade, the 2005 is nevertheless drinking well, with a barley-sugar colour, tawny-port aroma and a stunning fusion of malty sweetness, English ale bitter hops and oloroso sherry notes.
A few more years should see the bitterness mellow out and the fruit soften.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November / December 2009