The Germans have a saying, and it goes something like this, “Only drink beer in the shadow of the brewery”. It refers to their philosophy that fresh beer is best. While I would generally champion this line of thought, there is always an exception to most rules. Last week, I was lucky enough to drink an Emerson’s JP 2009 vintage. Yep, an eight-year old beer. We are accustomed to collecting and cellaring wine, but to most of you out there the idea of waiting eight years to drink a beer is ludicrous … right? Actually, it is not that common, but definitely on the increase. Now there was still an element of luck as to whether this beer was going to be any good when we opened it. Lucky for us it was! Better than that it was a quite superb dark Belgian dubbel, weighing in at a hefty eight per cent alcohol by volume (abv) with big toffee notes and a velvety mouth feel. I was extremely grateful for the chance to try a beer that had been cellared for that period of time.
Now don’t go stashing your stubbies of Speights and Steinlagers away in the hope that they will become a better beer in the future, because I can assure you that won’t happen. For those of you patient enough to try cellaring a beer or two, there are a few basics to follow. When it comes to cellaring, location is critical. Somewhere dark and cool is ideal, refrigerated at a constant temperature between four and eight degrees is even better. Constant changes in temperature will deteriorate the quality of your prize charges quickly.
What beer do you cellar? Some beers are designed to be drunk fresh and aren’t suitable for long-term cellaring. Pale ales and lagers are generally such beers. They are best consumed young as the hop characteristic changes early on in most pale ales. But, hey, like I said earlier there are always exceptions to a rule so why not try. Big dark ales, sour beers and stouts in the seven per cent abv and above are perfect candidates for squirrelling away. Unlike wine, our beers need to be stored upright, not laying down. This is because most of them have crown caps, not corks.
Often breweries will put long use by dates on their beers based on their higher alcohol content. This is a good guide. Certain local breweries even state the vintage and suggested cellaring dates on the bottles.
Several local Kiwi brewers now age beer at source. Soren Eriksen, at Warkworth brewery 8 Wired, has one of the largest barrel aging programmes in the southern hemisphere. This is when the brewery leave the beer to age in oak barrels for lengthy periods before unleashing them on the public. Beers of this nature are often great for cellaring as they frequently have a higher abv and loads of unusual flavours from the barrel aging process.
When do you drink them? That’s a million-dollar question. For many there is no absolute answer. What I would do is this: Cellar three or four of your desired beers, wait a couple of years and then try one. Then another the next year and so on. There are no guarantees the beer will taste amazingly better, some flavours will fade and others will grow in prominence. It may even be absolute rubbish. One thing you should do is try one before you cellar them, make some brief tasting notes and tuck them any somewhere safe for reference later. Get the basics right and there are some wonderful tastes to be explored and enjoyed.
Ian Marriott, Tahi Bar