Drinking aged beers
Last Updated : 07/01/07
Why it's best to leave old beers well alone, by Gazza.
recent thread on the Ratebeer discussion forum prompted me to write this article elaborating my views on aged beers; my personal opinion is that anything over 10 years is a total waste of time, but other people may have different opinions to me – and indeed some do. I’m not saying I am right and they are wrong, simply elucidating why I think the way I do. Read on and see what you think of my ramblings…
In my opinion, tasting beer should ideally be done “blind” – that is, not knowing what the beer is as you drink it, therefore stopping any personal opinion from clouding the tasting such as an affection or dislike for a particular brewery. The same can be said of “situation”, that is we should always try – as much as is possible – to disregard the circumstances in which the beer is tasted and concentrate solely on the flavour of the brew and not add any extra points for spurious things such as “being in a great pub” or “drinking it with excellent company”. Yes, these might add up to a great drinking session, but to add points for these things is to make a mockery of the whole tasting and evaluation process.
Very few people would seriously argue that drinking a beer somewhere extra special, such as a remote brewpub or isolated free-house on some windy moor, isn’t the best way to scoop it rather than in some draughty hall masquerading as a beer festival. However, I think that we should try and keep perspective on our beer tasting - a mediocre beer drunk in exceptional circumstances isn’t a good beer, it’s still mediocre but drunk in exceptional circumstances; it reminds me of the story about a group of whisky tasters out salmon fishing and one of them decided to switch the bottle of Glenlivet for a bottle of supermarket own-label to see if it would be detected. It wasn’t, and some of those present – including, apparently, well-respected tasters and writers - declared the cheap Ł5 bottle of blended whisky “excellent”; this just goes to show the overriding factor of situation over the faculties of taste in some situations
Now don’t get me wrong; I still get a buzz from finding something rare or very good; I’m sure most would agree that if any of us didn’t then it would be time to pack it all in and go and do something else more interesting. However, my point is that the beer evaluation must come above any transient factors such as the setting or company - the taste is all that matters, and the fact the beer is, say, over 100 years old or was brewed by a long-defunct company shouldn’t matter at all. That’s why I try and taste a lot of my beers at home "blind" so I have no idea what they are and can be totally honest with myself about them and, only last night, I was very surprised to place Westmalle Dubbel above Westvleteren 8 in a blind Trappist tasting! It’s all about the taste, character and condition of the beer, nothing about the taster’s preconceptions or opinions, when a beer is tasted blind and - in my opinion - all tasting is better that way, although obviously this is far more difficult in a pub than sat at home with unlabelled glasses.
Some people like aged beers, some people don’t, however it’s generally accepted that beers do not age well due to several factors, mostly strength, hygiene and fastness of the closure, but also because the constituents in beer break down to form unpleasant flavours such as cardboard, the tell-tale sign of any aged beer. If any yeast is present then you also get Madeira tastes (from slow-working or wild yeasts) and also acetic notes as the yeasts break down and bacteria build up, sometimes to extremely unpleasant levels. Blind tasting these beers is a great leveller, as even if the beer in the bottle is from a long-closed brewery and therefore very desirable; if it's a disgusting beer then it's a disgusting beer no matter who brewed it, and a blind tasting would remove the preconceptions from the beer's evaluation.
In the mid-1970s, when a team of flavour chemists from 40 countries identified 800 chemical compounds in beer, a lot of wine snobs got very worried as the crap they’d been spouting for years about beer being “bland” and “not complex” was clearly debunked as pure wine snobbery. However, how some of these flavours change with storage into not-so-pleasant tastes is still the subject of much debate and research. According to researchers at the Ghent brewing school in Belgium, “The older a beer is, the staler it tastes. Many brewers attribute stale, cardboard flavour to trans-2-nonenal. People can taste this compound at concentrations as low as 0.035 µg per litre, but it can reach 0.5 µg per litre of beer after 3 to 5 months of storage at room temperature”.
With a strong beer, such as Bass No.1 or Thomas Hardy, you won’t get as much infection or as many off-tastes as the alcohol will preserve the liquid better, but unless the closure is perfect and it was bottled in peak condition then the beer’s flavour mix will begin to change after a few months, usually not for the better, and whatever the quality of the beer the flavour will begin to alter after a year or two as the organic compounds in the fluid break down and change.
How the bottle has been stored will also be a big factor; in a cellar you may have a slight chance of it being drinkable, but if it has been out in the sunlight on a shelf and it’s obvious what would happen to it – light-struck and undrinkable and only useful as a curiosity – or to put back on the shelf as decoration! Any beer in a clear bottle will absolutely, definitely not be suitable for consumption after a year unless it’s been kept in total darkness away from natural light – the reason for this is that the Ultraviolet spectrum (wavelengths under 500 nm) in natural light turns certain elements in the beer into a snappily-named compound called 3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol; bottling beer in green or brown bottles excludes this wavelength of light and – more or less – eliminates the problem of “skunkiness” or light-struck off-tastes found in beer.
My view - and most beer writers you could ask - would be that strong beer ages well up to around five years and then starts to deteriorate, sometimes quickly, dependent on keeping and bottling hygiene. Having tried several old (and some very old) beers) for academic interest over the years I have concluded I don’t like drinking thin, sherryish, cardboardy, acetic sludge and nowadays rarely bother; I just don’t see how something over, say, 20 years old would be in a drinkable state. Yes, worth trying for interest, but a tasty drinking experience? I don’t think so. It’s my opinion that beer just doesn’t age well, and certainly not for that long - yes it may be clinically drinkable, but it’s not pleasant drinking - a sip might make you say "wow, that’s amazing" but could you drink a half pint of the stuff? I doubt it; having tried quite a few aged beers in the Kulminator in Antwerp a few years back I came to the conclusion that they were all far too old, past their best and tasted nothing like they were supposed to. Maybe this is just my opinion, but aged beers simply don’t taste pleasurable - they may be interesting, but they’re not enjoyable drinking taste-wise.
Of course, many beers have been – and still are – aged in various parts of the world as a matter of course – Saisons and Lambics in Belgium are prime examples. Ageing beer for a year however, in the way of Saisons and the like, is a totally different matter as it’s only 6 months to a year before the beers should be consumed and, anyway, they are especially brewed to survive this ageing, whilst a 10% barley wine just isn’t brewed to last more than 10 years, no matter what anyone might tell you. Lambics are also different, in that they have almost no residual sugars for bacteria and/or yeast to work on and therefore deteriorate a lot slower; Gueuze actually improves up to 30 years in the best examples but this is mainly because the beer is supposed to be acidic and sour – ordinary beers can’t get away with these flavours which, quite rightly, are classed as faults and off-flavours.
After drinking 17,000 beers over 15 years, being a trained cellarman, having been on tasting panels and keeping tasting notes for all of the beers I’ve drunk I can honestly say I’ve experienced some of the best - and the worst - of beer in my scooping career so far. Included in these “experiences” are some old beers which I don’t count towards my total as most of them were not bottle-conditioned and/or they tasted so rank I felt it wouldn’t be representative to count them as being drunk; I do have a very open mind on beer, but I know what my experience tells me about very old bottles – that they taste of cardboard and very old sherry!
To conclude, I feel strongly that anyone tasting beer mustn’t put situation before flavour - yes, it may have been amazing to sample a 100-year old beer from a long defunct brewery which was still vaguely drinkable, but I don’t think the situation can in any way come above the actual flavour and condition of the beer being tasted – be it 100 years old or 1 month old - simply because of the experience/situation the brew was consumed under. Drinking aged beer can be extremely interesting (it can also be extremely unpleasant!) but, in my opinion, it’s not something which gives good taste experiences... the history may be palpable in some old beers, but so is the bacteria, off-flavours and sediment!
Leave the old bottles on the shelf where they belong and just don’t bother drinking beers more than a few years old; it simply isn’t going to be a pleasurable experience!
Some further Reading –
© Gazza 07/01/2007 V1.0