First Draft: Sometimes, aging a batch of brew is worth the wait
The farmhouse ale was ready to be bottled, but no one would taste it for a year.
Tony Zamperini wass prepared to be patient.
“We love aged beer,” said Zamperini, head brewer at Draai Laag Brewing Co. in Millvale. “The longer it sits.”
Most everyone is familiar with the practice of aging wine, or at least the adage “like a fine wine” that flatters those of advancing years. Wine gets better with time. The same principle holds true for certain beers.
Left alone with a pinch of yeast, all kinds of magic can happen in a bottle of beer.
A fruity Belgian tripel can become tart and vinous. The boozy heat of a barleywine can mellow and reveal layers of caramel, raisin and licorice. The change can be subtle, slow maturing, tweaking its game like a veteran baseball pitcher. Or it can be a radical shift that renders beer as unrecognizable, like former classmates at your 20-year high-school reunion.
Zamperini is enchanted with the idea of brewing a beer one day and tasting something completely different when he returns a year later. There are plenty of dusty examples in his personal collection at home, which he estimates to be around 500 bottles.
“I have my very first batch that I've ever done,” he said. “Seven years old. It's just a straight, regular amber.”
He discussed aging beer one recent morning as he and assistant brewer, Nate Hoylman, set up bottles to be filled with Draai Laag's Goedenacht, a Beligan-inspired farmhouse ale brewed with apples, orange blossom honey and a yeast strain known as Brettanomyces.
Taste it today, and it would be delicious. Wait six months, and it would still taste wonderful, but not the same.
“You're buying one thing, and you can appreciate it as such,” said Draai Laag owner Dennis Hock. “But if you lay it down, it becomes something completely else.”
Like the Belgian brewers from whom it draws inspiration, Draai Laag ages beer “on lees.” That is, they leave a little yeast in each bottle.
To understand why, you need to accept that beer is alive. Yeast is an organism and evolves over time. Leaving a trace of yeast in the bottle allows the beer to keep “living” and imparts depth, the flavor constantly changing.
To prove the point, Hoylman offered two small snifters of Goedenacht. One was a month old, and the other had been in the bottle for six months.
The first was a milky straw color, softer on the palate, with a honey sweetness and aroma of mango with pepper. The older one had developed a tartness, allowing the Brett yeast to go to work, and featured more prominently apple cider and white grape flavors.
Several cases of the Goedenacht were set aside as part of the brewery's nascent aging program. Draai Laag has been doing this with each batch brewed during the past few months. The aged bottles will be dressed up a little bit before they hit shelves — and probably sold at a premium price. But the program is a favor to Draai Laag's customers, Hoylman says.
“It's a lot to ask someone to buy a bottle and sit on it for eight months,” Hoylman said.
Yes, it is. Most of the bottles in my cupboard never make it past half a year, unless enclosed in a box that has been taped shut with a “DO NOT OPEN UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH” threat scrawled across the seal. And if it is opened prematurely, I am usually to blame.
Not every beer ages well. Low-alcohol beers tend not to survive as long as their bigger brethren. Neither do hoppy beers. Hops are a preservative in beer, but their aromatic qualities begin to break down in a matter of weeks. They are flowering cones, after all, and smell best when freshly plucked.
Zamperini recalled a pale ale he stashed away at his in-laws' house. He'd forgotten about it, and then opened a bottle when he discovered it again four years later. He remembered it being tasty the first go-around. Not so much the second time.
“It was vinegar,” he said. “I was embarrassed.”
The fact that it was stored in a barn loft didn't help. Beer doesn't enjoy light, heat or rapid changes in temperature. Think dark, cool places.
But you should definitely try aging. Find a nice Belgian abbey ale, a saison, English barleywine or, if you're into sours, a lambic. Then, forget about it. Keep it out of sight. By the time you stumble upon the bottle, maybe an anniversary will be coming up or the Pirates will have won a World Series.
Then, you'll want to toast with something that reminds you it was worth the wait.
Chris Fleisher has aged like a fine dad, developing aromas of freshly cut lawn clippings and Old Spice “Sport” scent deodorant. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.