Monday, December 8, 2008

Cellar Series – 2006 Spank Me Baby Barleywine

There are three issues we should address before we get to the review. First, why age beer; second, what is the effect of aging; third, how do you age a beer.

The first issue is why in the world anyone would cellar, or age, a beer. We typically think of beer as something to pound in quantity straight out of the bottle, or, if you are lucky and skilled enough, out of a funnel, or, perhaps while standing on your hands above a keg, or maybe, maybe, to put into a chilled pint glass. Heck, many beer manufacturers put "born on" dates and "best by" dates on their beer. We talk about beer getting skunked. We talk about beer going bad. As the kids might say, WTF?! Why would voluntarily save a beer?

In some cases beer does, in fact, go bad. Hops can have undesirable effects when exposed to some kinds of light over a period of time – which is why we have to be careful about clear bottles; there is some debate that Heineken's green bottles are not particularly good at shielding beer, either.

But, that is not the kind of "going bad" that we are talking about. What we are talking about here is the effect of time on a properly stored bottle (or can) of beer. And, in many cases, the effects are very, very pleasurable. In other cases, the effects are very, very unpleasurable. It just so happens that the beer manufactured by those that put "born on" dates and "best buy" dates on their bottles does not keep particularly well. The effect of time on these kinds of beer make the beer very very not good. So, these manufacturers instill in the consuming public this idea that beer, in particular their beer, which represents about 90%+ of the beer sold in the United States, goes bad – the implied, or rather the un-corrected general implication, is that all beer goes bad since, after all, 90% of the beer sold in the United States will.

There are some styles, however, that hold up very, very well over time. Like a fine wine, these beers can change their very nature over the course of time and become much more complex, much more developed, much smoother, much richer.

Which brings us to our second question: what is the effect of aging. First, it is important to know what is in a beer bottle. Beer, duh. But let's look a little closer at what is in that bottle. Water. Malted barley and other grains. Hops. Yeast, in suspension in the beer, but also, possibly, on the bottom of the bottle [ed note: if the beer is bottled with a small portion of active yeast to aid in the conditioning and further fermenting of the beer, the label will often denote this as a "bottle conditioned" beer]. And, in addition to the ingredients that are in the beer, there is one more thing in the bottle and one more thing on the bottle that impact aging. Headspace and a cap, respectively. Each of these items affects the effect of time on that beer.

So, what happens to a beer over time? Well, much the same things that happen to beer before it hits the bottle. It continues to ferment on yeast; it continues to steep in its base ingredients. If the water is poor quality, the poor quality will become more pronounced. If there is oxygen in the headspace or the cap is not on tight, the beer will oxygenate.

But the two biggest actors on the aging of beer are yeast and alcohol. "More alcohol means there's more sugars and flavors that can evolve." [cite] "If there is yeast in the bottle, that's good. The yeast will continue its fermentation for a few years, changing the existing flavors and adding new ones, before it dies out and adds its own taste, a biscuity flavor found in old Champagnes, [Brooklyn Brewery, Head Brewer Garrett] Oliver said." Hops present an interesting issue: while in fresh beer they provide a bright bitterness and delicious aromas, these are relatively short-lived effects. Over time these effects will decrease significantly. In the place of bitterness and, to some extent, aroma the beer will "steep," much like tea leaves. But this effect can be volatile – in some cases bringing in the grassiness of the hops, in others simply turning overly sharp like an 'over-steeped' tea.

"All beers don't age the same," said Nasser Eftekhari, owner of Beer Mania in Brussels, a specialty beer store that ships Belgian beers suitable for aging to customers around the world. "Usually, brown beers age better than light beers, and the big beers [volume-wise – e.g., 22oz and 750 ml bottles] twice as long as small bottles." He added, "Alcohol and aging have a direct relationship. More alcohol is usually better for aging." [cite]

One final note before we get to how: beer that is pasteurized will not age.

Great. This is all great! How do you start aging your beer? Well, BeerAdvocate has a great article about aging beer. Basically: keep the bottles out of the light, in temperature-stable areas that stay at about 65 degrees. Cellars, unsurprisingly, are very good at this. It is generally recommended that you keep the bottles upright ("Long storage of a beer on its side can create a yeast ring (or water-mark) inside the bottle, which will not settle. Storing a beer upright will ensure that the yeast compacts to the bottom of the bottle." And "The upright storage method decreases the amount of exposed beer thus slowing oxidation of the beer.") Personally, I have a cabinet in an out of the way place in my apartment that I've commandeered for beer-storage purposes. Hopefully your significant other, if applicable, is as patient and indulgent as mine.

Without further ado: a 2006 Tyranena
Spank Me Baby Barleywine
(BA. RB.)

Appearance: poured at 48 degrees in a small brandy snifter, the head, what there is of it, is white and wispy; the body is a hazy deep mahogany with orange and ruby on the edges
Aroma: sharp and malty biscuit comes through on the front reminding one of a newly finished desk with some floral and grassy notes along with chestnut and a caramel
Flavor: huge and smooth malt and alcohol like a fine, ummm, barley wine? Slightly whiskeyish, with a slight woodiness despite the fact that this is not the bourbon-barrel-aged version of this beer; a tinge of flower-iness, maybe chamomile, in the finish
Body: a nice clean, warm finish with a medium body and full, but not syrupy, mouthfeel
Drinkability: very nice and smooth, it is perfect in a brandy snifter and I would split this 12oz bottle with someone to celebrate a nice meal or an important occassion
Summary: I still have one more bottle to save for some time in the future, maybe 2016.


  1. "beer that is pasteurized will not age."

    Not an expert on aging beers or anything, but it would seem to me that even pasteurized beers would be susceptible to changes from oxidation over time.

    If a pasteurized beer meets the other requirements to be a successful candidate for aging and oxidized flavors might add instead of subtract from the flavor profile of that particular beer, maybe it can still benefit from aging?

    Anyone have any experience aging pasteurized beers?

    Good work on the reviews recently. Keep 'em coming.

  2. I have several 'very' aged beers - and a number of aged homebrews - what I've found is that pasteurization will lead to unpleasant aging. Since most pasteurized beer are also filtered there is no yeast to contribute anything and a very grainy/biscuity flavor emerges without depth. I find higher hop levels another important factor since they add preservative qualities as well as another flavor component that changes over time.
    And not all high alcohol, high hop, bottle conditioned beers are going to age gracefully - you can make an educated guess as to what will happen, but I still think it's mostly a crap-shoot. They'll all be interesting, but not always good.
    J, lets have a beer sometime soon.


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