Aging Beer: A Coda

Decades ago, I started a beer cellar. Like so many other magpies, I collected shiny objects and hoarded them in the basement. For Christmas one year I got a rack for my growing collection. The thing is, very, very rare is the beer that actually benefits from such treatment. And among those that do benefit, the effect is usually limited to months or a few short years. Certain wild ales are an exception, as are extremely strong stouts and a few other boozers--but even then, only with caveats. Over the past few years, I've been drastically scaling back all aging, and will someday have winnowed my stash down to a handful of carefully-monitored bottles. (I may also keep some around, with no intention of opening them, as keepsakes.)

Beer is meant to be served fresh, in almost every case. One of my favorite quotes on the subject comes from a research paper (pdf) that describes the aging process.

"The constituents of freshly bottled beer are not in chemical equilibrium. Thermodynamically, a bottle of beer is a closed system and will thus strive to reach a status of minimal energy and maximal entropy. Consequently, molecules are subjected to many reactions during storage, which eventually determine the type of the aging characteristics of beer."

Imagine an ice sculpture. At the moment it emerges from the freezer, its edges are sharp and articulated, the details precise. A few moments in the warmth begins a process of relaxing that will result, eventually, in a pool of water. So it is with beer. Those rare good aged beers are designed so that the reactions that continue to happen inside the bottle produce flavor compounds that are, if not better than the ones composed by the brewer, at least an interesting alternative. And even then you have to hope that all the possible negative flavor compounds do not emerge, or are at least mild enough to be overlooked.

And yet.

Age exerts other, more subjective changes on a beer that aren't appreciated so much by the senses as the amygdala, where our emotional memory resides. The whiff of an old beer may well express oxidation, but carries certain other buried scents as well--nostalgia, time, memory. These are harder to quantify, but they are real. They evoke an unexpected sense of presence or even awe.

Last night, one of my old bottles of beer--a white elephant gift to a friend--came out at the gaming table. It was a 19-year-old Saxer doppelbock, made by the uber-traditional Tony Gomes in the last, doomed days of one of Oregon's most celebrated breweries. He used decoction mashes, and according to the label, lagered the 8% doppelbock for two months. It shouldn't have been any good. I expected it to flow from the bottle murky and flat, separate out in the glass, and have that oxidized and blown-out flavor most of my old beers have. Amazingly, it held up incredibly well. Still carbonated and bright, it was definitely oxidized, but that created those lovely flavors of fig and raisin only age can produce. It was sweet, overly so, honestly (another effect of time on hops and malt), but chocolatey and silky. But it was all pleasant, unusual, and bespoke loudly of its antiquity.

The flavors of age are unmistakable, and that's usually a bad thing. But in the presence of a beer that hasn't been brewed since the Clinton administration, from a brewery that failed so long ago few would recognize the name, from the last century, it carries all those associations and evocations of the passage of time. It tastes old, which is satisfying to the drinker. There would be something slightly dispiriting about a perfectly-preserved beer from a defunct brewery. As we drank it, I felt a sense of wonder arise from the group. People immediately asked if I'd write about it, which I certainly hadn't intended. People shouldn't age most beers, and I don't know that I want to be in the business of encouraging it. (I have another bottle or two of that beer, and they may well be terrible--each bottle is its own science experiment.) And yet, our experience last night was something I'm very glad to have enjoyed. Amid our boisterous evening, it created a reverent moment, one that may never come around again, if ever.

So let's revise the formula. You shouldn't age beer, and if you do, you shouldn't age it very long. And, if you do age it for a long time, you should expect it to taste bad. But if you age a beer for a long time, and it somehow doesn't taste bad, you will have a rare and wonderful beer-drinking moment. There's only a lottery-chance it will turn out. On the other hand, there's no chance if you don't age the beer in the first place.

Which reminds me, I have an old bottle of Roots down there somewhere...