I am a bit of a packrat personality: I tend to collect things and in recent years this has turned towards beer (go figure). When I’m buying beer (particularly specialty beer) I have an impulse toward buying extra to “put away”—to cellar the beer with the idea that it will change (hopefully for the better) with age.
Many of us beer geeks are like that. (Though not all of us; my Hop Press compatriot, Steph Weber, coincidentally just mentioned yesterday that she is not a fan of aging beer.) We have a stash of beer squirreled away somewhere (mine is closet space under the stairs) that we keep adding to with the intent of “drinking it someday.” (Or to hold vertical tastings, or for bragging rights, or whatever.) All well and good, but where do we draw the line? At what point do we get diminishing returns on our collecting?
I got to thinking about this as I was drinking a bottle of Pliny the Elder the other night. (The latest shipment of Pliny had arrived at Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago.) On the label, Russian River Brewery goes out of their way to make sure that you drink Pliny fresh (and DO NOT AGE):
Respect your Elder: keep cold, drink fresh, do not age! Pliny the Elder is a historical figure, don’t make the beer inside this bottle one! Not a barley wine, do not age! Age your cheese, not your Pliny! Respect hops, consume fresh! Does not improve with age! Hoppy beers are not meant to be aged! Keep away from heat! If you must, sit on eggs, not on Pliny! Do not save for a rainy day! Pliny is for savoring, not for saving! Consume Pliny fresh, or not at all!
Bear in mind that Pliny is an 8% beer—strong enough to stand up to a little aging. But it’s the hops in the beer that won’t: Pliny is intensely hoppy with fresh grapefruit and hop resins and unfortunately, hops in fact don’t age well. So RRB’s stance is Pliny should be enjoyed fresh and as hoppy as it was intended.
We had been struggling with date coding our Reserve Series beers because we knew they could cellar well for several years, just how many we could not yet be certain. It is likely, that with some, they may last for a decade or two, or more. So, last year we started date coding our Reserve Series bottles with a “Best After” date that was set one year from bottling. We thought the beers were better off having a year to age and would only improve from there. Well, people were certainly confused. “Is it ok to drink before one year?” “Will it make me sick?” The answers are simple, no it will not make you sick (Unless you drink too much and we all know we drink responsibly, don’t we?) And, yes it is ok to drink before one year.
And of course you can age other beers that Deschutes’ Reserve Series; I’ve been aging some Jubelale for the past few years (recall the vertical tasting I did a couple of months ago), and I’ve rather inadvertently aged a few bottles of last year’s Hop Henge Batch #1 and Red Chair IPA—both are hop-forward beers that may or may not stand up well to cellaring. (Only tastings will tell!)
Besides those, I have in my beer stash: four years of The Abyss (though only two bottles of the first 2006 release); at least one six-pack of last year’s Bigfoot Barleywine from Sierra Nevada; a case (minus two bottles) of Rogue Imperial Porter; just shy of a case of Rogue’s Sesquicentennial Ale (Ashland bottle); a bottle or two each of Trader Joe’s Vintage Ale for 2008 and 2009; a couple bottles of Goose Island’s 2008 Bourbon County Stout; and a few other odds and ends.
When does the aging end and the drinking begin? Do you follow the Pliny school of thought, or the Reserve Series? Lately I’ve been drifting a bit from the Reserve Series column to the Pliny column: beer is meant to be drank. But there are some styles of beer that are worth aging; it’s not an absolute either way for me.
(Translation: I’m going to start drinking more of these beers rather than compulsively holding on to them, packrat-style.)
My rule of thumb: if it’s a big beer (8%+ alcohol by volume), and particularly a malt-forward beer (stouts, porters, barleywines, strong Belgians), aging is good. Hop-forward beers should be consumed relatively fresh. Imperial/Double IPAs are kind of a gray area; aging them will lose much of the hop intensity but it might provide a very interesting experiment. (And of course there’s always wiggle room to break these rules!)
Where do you fall on the Pliny/Reserve Series scale?
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