Non-beer-geek friends ask curiously, "Aged beer?" with a raised eyebrow when I tell them I have a small beer cellar. Fooled by contemporary advertisements touting bottling dates to insure freshness, they might also say "I thought beer was supposed to be fresh."
Well, it is.
Most of the time.
But not always.
As JorisPPattyn explained in his excellent article on aging beer here at RateBeer (see <a href="http://www.ratebeer.com/Beer-News/Article-466.htm"> So Youíve Got a Cellar...Now What? ), some beers are suitable for aging. In fact, many will improve with time. Barley wines fall into that category, in my opinion. The heavy malt content changes its flavor profile nicely, and the high alcohol tends to preserve the beer well.
While rummaging through my small collection recently, there they were: a half-dozen 1995 barley wines from different breweries. It wasnít planned to have six beers from the same style with they same age, but a light bulb went on: a horizontal tasting! One by one, <a href="http://www.ratebeer.com/ViewUser.asp?userID=4694">Yogi_Beera and I cracked open our six decennial brews and systematically dissected each. It was Christmas day 2005.
Here is what we found out from our aging experiment.
The vintages were stored in a cool basement for their respective life spans. I brought them to Germany from America a two months before this tasting. Iím not sure if the journey affected the beer in any way, but we are assuming there was no significant change due to the transport.
We tasted each beer individually at first, with enough left over to do a side-by-side comparison later. We used the RateBeer scale to evaluate the beer collectively. After the initial sips and tasting notes for each, we discussed the beer. The numbers below represent an approximate average of our both our scores.
After the initial rating of each, we did a blind tasting. The John Barleycorn and Sam Adams Triple Bock were gimmes. The other four were similar enough to cause some confusion. I guessed 3 of the 6 correctly (50%) on the first try; Yogi_Beera was batting a 66% (4 of 6). We were both able to guess the ones we missed by the second try.
This barley wine starts with a syrup-like nose with hints of dates and raisins backed up by a a good waft of alcohol. At times there are aromas of blackberry brandy as well. The color is an opaque, dark chestnut with no head or carbonation in sight. The taste is a full, well-blended caramelly malt base with cough syrup and earthy notes, as well as a faint hint of ground coffee beans. It concludes with a light spiced end. Very little of the original hop character remains at all, so this is a very mellow Bigfoot. Overall, the texture is incredible smooth and silky - just a great mouth feel.
Iíve noted in another article that Bigfoot peaks after about 5 years of aging (See <a href="http://www.ratebeer.com/Beer-News/Article-137.htm">Tracking Bigfoot). This 10-year-old demonstrated a second wind for the brew, however. Perhaps giving a chance for the hops to mellow and the flavors to blend takes longer than 5 years? Younger Bigfoot will still have powerful hop tastes that this one didnít. But it seems that Bigfoot will continue to evolve for the better beyond 5 or even 10 years.
John Barleycorn pours a murky, opaque brown with no head. It opens with an intense spicy nose full of thyme, sage, peppermint, and pine - herbs a-go-go! There are also brandy-like aromas and a good dose of alcohol. The piney tastes come out again in the flavor profile, particularly toward the end. There are also hints of juniper and anise - almost like au Pernot. The body is thinner than expected. A big warming alcohol effect wafts up through the nasal cavity after the swallow, though this is not overbearing.
This cloudy brown brew gives off strong aromas of molasses and roasted grains with a little peat. A heavy caramel malt body is accented with earthy and woody undertones. The end is gritty with some bitter - peppery at first, becoming more like weak coffee as the glass warmed. The balance of heavy, sweet
malts and the dry, spicy end is quite sophisticated. Not surprisingly there is a big warming presence of alcohol in the back of throat.
This 10-year-old Old Foghorn actually has a fair amount of carbonation. There is a low lathery head around the edge of the glass after the pour and a few visible bubbles in the dark chestnut brown body. The aroma is mostly an strong roasted malt with a subtle hint of charcoal. This has a fat, sweet malt front with hints of blueberry and a woody, dry end. If you look hard, youíll find a little bitter from hops. Itís thick, for sure, but the slight fizziness sets this off from the rest in mouth feel: It gives the illusion of a lighter brew. The flavor profile goes by quick, but the balance is great.
This is the lightest in appearance of the sextet: a clear brown with no head. There are a few small air bubbles of the edge of the glass, though. The pleasant nose offers hints of raisins, prunes and chocolate riding atop a whiff of alcohol. The body is sweet like the others, but not as thick. Flavors consist of light toasted malt, chocolate notes and even subtle espresso notes. And of course, a warming alcohol effect fills the throat on the way down. This Thomas Hardy has a silky texture and impeccable balance overall.
How to you begin to rate this beer? Itís in a league of its own, really. It begins with an immense nose of sugar, molasses, malt extract and even a little dust with gigantic amounts of alcohol. Yikes. A chokingly thick body tastes of blackstrap molasses with hints of soy sauce, licorice and tobacco. This has an extremely heavy body that pours like motor oil. As far as I can recall from previous tastings of Sam Adams Triple Bock, this hasnít really changed much from its original state. The maple syrup flavors come through in the middle and there is no bitter or spiciness to counter it. You could really do shots of this stuff - might even be better. There is an unpleasant whisky-like taste and texture that makes one wince at first. This is an experience and a half. By all means try it. But it may not be for everyone.
One point of order about the cork: it completely broke as I attempted to remove it. This wasnít the first time this happened to me with Sam Adams Triple Bock. It doesnít seem like they got that right. This might be a minor nit, but having pieces of cork floating around didnít help.
These are all mature, sophisticated brews that deserve our high scores. Other commonalities between the years include: <ui>
<li>The aging process in general results in thick, flat beers. These all have a similar, heavy texture akin to brandy or syrup.
<li>The hop character is reduced, in some cases greatly (e.g. Bigfoot).
<li>Alcohol seemed to become more present with time. This may have just been an illusion due to the low carbonation and lack of hop character.
<li>Flavors of the beers are mellow and well blended. It was sometimes to hard to isolate individual taste components. But overall the balance of these beers are in a class of their own. </ul>