Brews That Stand the Test of Time

At the Brickskeller in Washington, owner David Alexander keeps a cache of rare vintage brews.
At the Brickskeller in Washington, owner David Alexander keeps a cache of rare vintage brews. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Most commercial beers are at peak freshness the moment the cap is crimped over the lip of the bottle. It's all downhill from there. Anheuser-Busch recommends drinking Budweiser within 110 days. Boston Beer cites a shelf life of five months for its Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

Some beers, however, will age gracefully for years, even decades, if stored properly, enabling connoisseurs to compare their favorite vintages.

A beer cellar can consist of a few cases tucked into a crawl space beneath the stairs. Or it can be elaborate, like the climate-controlled basement where Matt Simpson stores his cache of 2,000 bottles. Simpson, a self-described "beer sommelier" who lives in Marietta, Ga., is the author of "Beer, a Primer," a training guide that includes a chapter on beer stewardship.

Which styles will stand the test of time? High-test brews such as barley wines, imperial stouts, wee heavies and Belgian strong ales have an advantage over beers of moderate strength. Bottle conditioning -- priming the beer with fresh yeast and sugar to spark a secondary fermentation -- helps greatly.

Full-bodied, malty beers have more longevity. High hop content is another plus. Hops are an antibacterial agent, Simpson notes, and help prevent spoilage. But many hopheads prefer to drink double and triple IPAs that are younger because hop aroma dissipates quickly with age.

What else happens to flavor as a beer ages? The raw-alcohol taste, which mars many American barley wines when they are young, fades away as flavors mellow and blend. Simpson says the malt acquires a toasty, biscuity flavor and fruity notes: "raisins, plums, prunes and cherries." Oxidation produces vinous flavors; some beers come to resemble a well-aged port or sherry.

In a special class are what Simpson calls "sour beers." Those include Belgian lambics: ales exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria of the atmosphere. Over the course of a leisurely fermentation that might take years, these wild microorganisms devour almost all the sugar, resulting in an extraordinarily dry beverage with funky overtones that are often likened to barnyards, horse blankets and freshly turned earth. "Sour-beer lovers are a relative minority," Simpson concedes. "These beers are an acquired taste, but they can be very addictive."

How should beer be stored to produce the desired flavors? Simpson recommends keeping the bottles cool rather than cold (55 to 65 degrees is fine) and, above all, shielding them from light. UV rays, he warns, can break down hop compounds called isohumulones, producing an unpleasant "skunky" aroma.

Always keep your bottles upright, he adds. If you lay a bottle sideways, you increase the surface area of the bubble in the bottle's neck, exposing more of the beer to trapped air. Overly oxidized beer can taste like "a mouthful of cardboard." And contact with liquid can rust the cap, Simpson says.

Besides space, the biggest impediment to maintaining a beer cellar might be lack of willpower. For those beer drinkers who can't resist depleting their stash, some taprooms sell beers that have already been aged at the brewery. The Dogfish Head Alehouses in Gaithersburg and Falls Church stock their coolers with vintage brews. And deep in the bowels of the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle, owner David Alexander maintains a cluttered vault of rare, old beers. His current menu includes four versions of the spiced Anchor Our Special Ale (dating to 2000) and five vintages of Thomas Hardy's Ale (the oldest from 1988).

"Thomas Hardy's was the first beer I bought not to sell," Alexander says. "That's when my vault started."

That strong (12 percent alcohol by volume) English ale was first brewed in 1968 for a festival honoring the 19th-century British novelist. The O'Hanlon Brewery in Devon, England, makes it today. The beer can be aged for more than a quarter- century, says importer George Saxon of Phoenix Imports in Ellicott City. Sweet and sherbety when young, Thomas Hardy's Ale becomes more like a port or brandy with age, with nuances of toasted malt, rum cake, dates and caramel.

Alexander admits that aging beer can be a "crap shoot." He likens the 2005 Dogfish Head Raison D'Extra (a rich, extremely powerful brown ale) to "a chocolate chip cookie dipped in Frangelico." But other beers can come out tasting like "borderline turpentine."

To assist beer collectors, Williamsburg AleWerks has added a "beer registry" to its Web site, Purchasers of the Virginia brewery's limited-edition Brewmaster Reserve beers can weigh in on how these strong ales are evolving over time.

Beer geriatrics might be a science in its infancy, but it's making progress.

Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached

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