How Beer Changes in Nine Years

Let us reflect a moment on 1999. I was barely into my 30s (!), and the Clinton administration was dealing with impeachment. The Dow closed above 10,000 for the first time. American Beauty won the Oscar for best picture, the Broncos won the Super Bowl, and the Yanks won the World Series. Ah, the good ole days.

In the beer world, it was also a different world. There was a company you might recall named Portland Brewing Company (PBCo to employees). It hadn't yet become MacTarnahan's, nor was it owned by out-of-state Pyramid. The brewery had recently expanded--perhaps the first step on the death knell of consolidation--buying Saxer and inheriting the Nor'Wester portfolio in the deal (both labels are now dead.) It was also during a year when Head Brewer Alan Kornhauser was overseeing Pabst's operations in China, and assistant brewer Brett Porter was manning the tun.

Porter introduced three or four really exceptional beers, and I thought the brewery might turn it around. He made a hop-oil-based pale (Oast Ale) that was vividly hoppy; an exceptional dry-hopped dry stout (Thunderhead Cream Stout, a name Pyramid approrpriated for its IPA) , and BobbyDazzler. I believe it was also dry-hopped--a preference of Porter's--but the details of the beer are lost to me. It was good enough that I bought a sixer to put away, and I now have two remaining.

I cracked one last night, and enjoyed the rare pleasure of a very nice aged beer from a kinder, gentler era.

Tasting Notes
BobbyDazzler, as was the case with all of PBCo's beer, was not bottle-conditioned. It is therefore substantially oxidized (though any 9-year-old beer would be somewhat), the effects of which come through in both in a chocolate-sherry note in the aroma, and a strong sherry character in palate. This is one of several possible results of oxidation, and the one generally forgiven by beer geeks. The flavor is produced when melanoidins in the beer become oxidized. There are other flavors oxidation can produce, generally regarded as flaws: diacetyl (a buttery flavor) which occurs when another chemical, a byproduct of yeast ( alpha acetolactate), is oxidized, and a metallic, blood-like flavor.

In the BobbyDazzler, I only pick up the sherry note, and it's intense. Combined with the alcohol, it does taste more like a liquor than a beer. There's a port quality, a refined, dry flavor that has dark fruit (plum and raisin), smoke, almonds, and woody elements. The hops are not evident individually, but it does not cloy. The aftertaste lingers a long time, in the manner of pipe smoke, roasted meat, or scotch. The more I drank, the more I liked it; my mouth became saturated with the flavor, and it lingered delightfully there for a half hour after I finished the beer.

As with all aged beers, it had transformed almost unbelievably. The sharper notes of hopping were completely gone, and the malt had been altered by oxidation. It was impossible to have a drink of the beer and trace the flavors present there back to the original recipe. It was, nine years on, a wholly different substance. The alchemy of metals may have been a bogus science, but in the transmutation of BobbyDazzler, I found it at work in my basement.

The lesson is that you should stash a sixer or two in the basement every six months or so. Dark, strong beers age the best, and bottle-conditioned beers even more so. The flavors the beers produce after nine years is unlike anything you can find in a commercial product. It requires patience and a reasonably cool place (reliably under 65 degrees, the less fluctuation the better). It doesn't cost a lot of money and the payoff is amazing. Plus, as you soon realize, the years roll by faster than you expect. You start digging around and pretty soon you find 10-year-old beer in the basement. And then all you have to do is muster the courage to crack it open and see what alchemy it contains.