Last year, we began cellaring beer. This year, we tasted the results.
If you’re a regular visitor to the Storey website, you may remember that, a little over a year ago, we started a vintage beer club. With Vintage Beer author Patrick Dawson advising our amateur group, we selected three beers that would show enough change in the span of a year to be worth our while: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale (an American barley wine) and two imperial-style stouts — Founders Breakfast Stout and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. Though we began our project thinking we’d conduct tastings along the way to the one-year mark, we quickly realized it made more sense to dig deep into our store of patience and wait.
Well, I’m here to report that we did it!
Last month, we gathered to crack open our vintage brews, along with fresh bottles for a vertical tasting, some snacks to keep us fortified, and a few Storey friends who were new to the vintage beer experience: in addition to club regulars Mars Vilaubi (photo editor), publicist Sarah Armour, and me (official blogger for the club), we were joined by editors Lisa Hiley, Sarah Guare, and Carleen Madigan; Brett McLeod, author of the forthcoming book The Woodland Homestead; and art director Mary Velgos.
Boldly, we popped the bottle caps, starting with the fresh beers first. Here’s what we found.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale
Note: We were surprised and delighted to learn that Mars had been aging this barley wine for his own collection for a year before we started our Vintage Beer Club. He generously shared from his stash, enabling us to taste bottles from 2013, 2014, and 2015.
2015: The fresh beer was a crystal-clear, golden amber with a light tan, creamy head. Naturally, drinking with a group makes for a diversity of opinions, so while I, an IPA fan, appreciated the distinct grapefruit scent of the fresh beer (others noted pine and grass), Carleen described the 2015 beer as smelling like “stale pee.” In taste, it delivered grapefruit, orange peel, pine, grass — even a hint of clove came into play. It also packed a wallop of an aftertaste, long and bitter, as if we’d been chewing on citrus rind.
2014: We detected a noticeable difference between the fresh beer and the aged versions, which get progressively redder and opaque. The hoppy aroma loses its punch over time, and the citrus notes soften and mellow. Happily, the bitter aftertaste also mellows with age. Flavors overall were better balanced in the older beers, with notes of caramel and something that hinted at brewed black tea with lemon.
2013: Foamier and redder, this one looked and smelled quite different from its younger siblings. That hoppy hit was absent and the citrus further muted. In taste, some described a hint of hops and a maltier caramel flavor. It reminded Mary of a strong German beer. I noted that sweet-black-tea-with-lemon flavor intensified (someone else in our group likened it to an Arnold Palmer). On a personal note, it quickly put to rest whatever skepticism I had about this exercise. When it comes to Bigfoot, it’s just that much better aged. I think even those among us who eschew hoppy beers agreed on that point.
Bonus cheese-pairing: The 2014 and 2013 went beautifully with the goat Gouda we had on the table. I know, I know – fatty foods are not suitable palate cleansers. No one said we were professionals.
Founders Breakfast Stout
2015: This was a dark brown, nearly black beer with ruby highlights in its fresh state. Someone in our group likened it to Coca-Cola, while it reminded Brett of “motor oil.” The aroma was boozy, sweet, and uncomplicated, with notes of coffee and caramel. As for taste, the fresh beer offered well-balanced coffee and chocolate flavors and a hint of oak and tobacco. The mouthfeel was smooth and surprisingly light. We all noticed a distinct metallic aftertaste (Carleen likened it to “licking a nickel”) that was absent in our past tastings. Maybe the result of autolysis (the breakdown of cell walls in the yeast)?
2014: After one year, there wasn’t a marked difference in the appearance of this dark brown stout. A few tasters noted that the aged beer looked slightly darker (we might have been imagining things). Compared to the fresh beer’s boozy, sweet aroma, the aged beer smelled fuller, richer, and maltier. It’s hard to say whether the taste improved over the course of one year. While the vintage version retained its smooth character, it also carried that bitter and decidedly metallic finish (“zing,” as one diplomatic group member noted) that left the back of my tongue tingling in a not-entirely-pleasant way.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
2015: This one is the highest of the three in ABV (10%) and a super black beer, with a small, creamy head and a misleading name when it comes to the promise of chocolate — at least in its fresh incarnation. As far as aroma, this one also sparked a range of opinions, from Sarah G.’s “sweet and wonderful” to “boozy” to Lisa’s “rubbing alcohol” and my own assessment (“Windex!”). Overall, as we sniffed the fresh beer, the burnt smell dominated. None of us tasted evidence of chocolate; rather, it leaned toward espresso and cherry, with a hint of sourness. It reminded Sarah A. of wine.
2014: The chocolate notes that the beer is named for became more apparent here than in its fresh counterpart, and, though it still smelled boozy, it also smelled sweeter, rounder, and even (as Mary noted) bourbon-like. When it came to flavor, our tasting notes speak for themselves: “totally unremarkable,” “more mellow but also blander,” “more sippable but less memorable,” to quote a few. There was some big-bubble carbonation that danced on the tongue, in contrast to the light carbonation of the fresh beer, and while some noted a tobacco taste that lingered, no one found it terribly chocolaty in flavor, even at the one-year mark. What’s interesting is that the overwhelming sour flavors we experienced when tasting this beer at the two-month mark were gone — a promising development for future aging.
A quick Google search reveals that we are certainly not the first to document a vertical tasting of this particular beer. Of the burnt quality that we found unpleasant, Patrick Dawson writes in Vintage Beer that such flavors are commonly found in stouts and will fade with time. “After three or four years of aging, these beers taste much more like a black barley wine, with a toffee sweetness that blends with the reduced roastiness to create a flavor like dark chocolate.” All of this bodes well for a longer aging process.
Fortunately, in buying fresh beer for our vertical, we restocked our stash and can look forward to next February, when we’ll have three years’ worth of beers to compare. Back to the cellar!