This is Part 2 of our five-part series of recommendations on beer. Last week, we covered readily available beers that you should drink as soon as possible. (You’re welcome.) This week, we look at beers that are easy to come by, change for the better with age and aren’t stupidly expensive, either.
There is always a degree of risk involved when aging beer. Some beers age beautifully. In some stouts, for example, excessive characteristics can become more nuanced and overall flavor profiles grow in subtle complexity as with fine wine. Other beers, like IPAs, should never be aged because hop aroma and bitterness can degrade quickly.
As Spec’s beer manager Joey Williams said, aging beer is a fun experiment and should be approached that way. Beer lovers who can’t stand the idea that occasionally an experiment will fail and they’ll have to throw the beer away shouldn’t play the aging game.
Williams personally doesn’t age most of his beers, saying, “I like rough edges. I like big, pronounced flavors. I can appreciate subtlety, but I go to many big beers (those worth aging) looking for my toes to curl.”
With that said, he has many suggestions that improve the chances that aging will produce a winner. First, try the beer unaged and ask, “What do I want from this beer?
Next, anticipate what will happen to the beer’s flavors over time. “Aggressive roast, like coffee, will smooth out to something more closely resembling chocolate,” says Williams. “Other flavors will be created through oxidation and time itself. Usually, the higher the alcohol content, the richer the flavors in the beer. This isn’t always the case, but it’s often the easiest way to gauge. Darker beers 'carry' age better than lighter beers. The flavors of oxidation in darker beers can present as dark/red/dried fruits, but in lighter beers you often get musty unpleasantness. There are exceptions, but this is another easy gauge to start with.”
Our list of readily available beers to age is a compilation of recommendations from Williams, The Hay Merchant proprietor Kevin Floyd and Justin Vann of Public Services Wine & Whisky. The beer at the end of this list was recommended independently by every single one of these beer professionals.
Lindeman's Cuvée René, 5.2 ABV, 16 IBUs
Vann: There are definitely better Gueuzes out there, but I specifically recommend Lindeman's Cuvée René as the commonly available sour fit for aging. I can't say I endorse this brewery's fruited lambics, but their Gueuze is pretty classic, and definitely built for the long haul with tons of sourness and earthy funk. If you're laying it down for longer than a year or two, try to find 750ml bottles. The vast majority of this will be found in 375ml. Also, beware: This is bottled in green glass, so try to grab one that wasn’t exposed to a bunch of light and store in a dark place.
You either love these beers or you despise them. If you're not sure, the Cuvée René won't break the bank in terms of trying one.
Hanssens Oude Gueuze, 6 ABV, 50 IBUs
Floyd: Hanssens is the last independent lambic blender in the world. The blender doesn’t brew beer; he buys lambic from other breweries and blends them. This makes for a great, well-rounded Gueuze. It can be consumed fresh or aged. The beer is at least a year in bottle once it’s on the shelf. Keep an eye out for other beers from Hanssens. The Experimental beers are very fascinating and worth looking for. (See the photo below for some help figuring out how long this beer has been in the bottle by the time it reaches the United States.)
Aecht Schlenkerla Oak Aged Doppelbock, 8 ABV, 40 IBUs
Floyd: This is a strange beer to age but it works. I had a chance to taste some aged bottles last year. It’s one of the few lagers I have had that can age.
Anchor Old Foghorn, 8.8 ABV, 52 IBUs
Floyd: Sold in Texas once a year but not hard to find on shelves year-round. This classical American barley wine will age for decades.
It’s kind of hard to determine the bottling date. There is a three-digit code on the back. The first number is the last digit of the year. The next letter is the month, and the last character is the day. The months are coded: J = Jan, F = Feb, M = Mar, A = Apr, Y = May, U = Jun L = Jul, G = Aug, S = Sep, O = Oct, N = Nov, D = Dec. The days 1 through 26 are coded A-Z, while days 27 through 31 are coded with the last digit of the day. Thus, 8JT was bottled on January 20, 2008.
Try to build a collection of bottles with ten to 14 months of age difference between them. Once you get four to six years, try them all in a vertical tasting.
Ballast Point Sea Monster, 10 ABV, 65 IBUs
With an ABV and enough hops to carry through over an extended period of aging, you better believe this is one that can survive cellaring. Characteristics include dark roasted coffee, chocolate and currants.
Floyd: Ballast Point uses a Julian code to date its bottles. So, you have to enter the code found on the bottle into a Julian calculator in order to find out its age.
North Coast Old Stock, 11.8 ABV, 34 IBUs
Even North Coast’s website says that this beer is intended to be put down and allowed to age like fine port. It’s made in California, but the company uses Maris Otter pale malt and Fuggles hops imported from England. The beer is deep mahogany in color, and it's common to detect flavors of dark, dried fruit and a bourbon-like character.
Floyd: Buy this beer and put it away for five years. You won’t be sorry.
Real Ale Commissar, 9.8 ABV, 75 IBUs
Williams: Real Ale finally started releasing bombers (22-ounce bottles) in 2015, and included was Commissar. It’s a rebranding of the brewery's 15th Anniversary Imperial Stout. When fresh, it’s big, roasty, dark and moderately hoppy or bitter. I was fortunate, or forgetful, enough to have still had some of the 15th Anniversary to try alongside my first bottle of Commissar. It was, and will be, worth the wait!
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, 9.6 ABV, 90 IBUs
Williams: In the world of vintage beers/wines, there is a style of event known as a “vertical tasting” where a series of different years of the same liquid are poured. These tastings are a great place to see what happens when you allow beer to age. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot may have been the first beer in American craft beer to be offered at such an event.
As an American barleywine, Bigfoot is both robustly malty (caramel, toast, bread) and aggressively hoppy (citrus/grapefruit, herbal, pine) with a firm bitterness when fresh. Bigfoot is released once a year (we usually see it in Houston in January or February), and I do my best at the Spec’s on Smith Street to buy enough to have all year. It comes in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles. This means you can buy a four-pack each year, drink one bottle and save the rest for the following years. At year four, you will have yourself a four-year vertical and some knowledge of what happens to beer over time, without investing too much.
Rodenbach Grand Cru, 6 ABV, 35 IBUs
Williams: Sours seem like a recent trend, but a little digging will tell of beer originating as a liquid that often ended up sour. Belgium maintains the most robust historical sour beer culture and lays claim to classics like Rodenbach, the sour red beer of Roeselare in Flanders. The beer is aged in wooden vats where it is allowed to sour and mature. It needs no additional age — the work has all been done.
However, with so much of beer’s history resulting from sour beer, there are many stories of decades-old bottles being found and consumed. Oftentimes, by the time the bottle is opened, the carbonation has all but left. As much as I don’t seek out aged beer, I hear or read these stories of beers older than myself and I want to experience that. Some of the brewers at Saint Arnold still talk about the time they got to drink a beer from the early 1900s. That’s a box I’d like to check out of sheer curiosity.
Orval, 6.2 ABV, 32 IBUs (International Bitterness Units)
Recommended by all three beer experts!
Vann: This is by far the most incredible beer that I never see anyone drinking or freaking out about. Orval is a bottle-conditioned Belgian pale ale with brettanomyces, a love-it-or-hate-it yeast strain that adds a distinctive barnyard-y aroma and makes it a perfect candidate for aging. This beer is wildly complex by itself — lots of herbacious hops, malty sweetness, just a twinge of lemony sourness, and the most ineffably fluffy, picturesque head of any beer in the universe.
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Williams: Orval is the only beer produced by the monastic brewery at the Abbaye de Notre Dame d’Orval. The story of the founding of the monastery is a great one and explains why the brewery’s logo on the label is a fish with a ring in its mouth, but I’ll leave discovering that to your readers. Bottle-conditioning is a process of carbonating the beer in the bottle, usually with the addition of a measured amount of sugar and fresh yeast. The brett does some really interesting things in the bottle, creating a unique range of flavors and aromas. The first sip of Orval I ever had, I didn’t know what to think of it but I wanted more to figure it out. I’ve been going back for more ever since and still don’t know what to think, except that I love it.
Floyd: All I have to say about Orval is that it’s badass. If there was such a thing as the perfect beer, Orval might be it. It can be consumed super-fresh. If you are lucky enough to be in Belgium, it can be found fresh on shelves everywhere, When fresh, it is a grassy, hop-forward pale ale, As it ages, it starts to “funk up.” It’s also a super-easy beer to age as the date code is right on the label (in the European format of day/month/year). Drink it when it’s less than two months old, again when it’s more than six months old but less than a year, at two and a half years old, then every other year after that. Not much changes between 18 months and two and a half years and between two and a half and four years. Orval can age for decades.
- Part 3, Buying Beer: Seasonal and Limited Beers
- Part 4, Buying Beer: Beers Worth Standing in Line For
- Part 5: Buying Beer: Beers to Seek When Traveling