“Time does not respect that which is done without him.”
This quote, which appears on a sign in the brewery of legendary lambic producer Cantillon, reflects the idea that it takes time to make things that will last. Many Belgian-style beers and sours are the product of lengthy and complex processes, ranging from the use of multiple yeast strains to barrel aging, blending, and bottle fermentation. The results can be fantastic, generating some of the most nuanced and enduring flavors the beer world has to offer.
But just how long can such beers endure? I’m not posing a philosophical question here. I’m thinking literally: what is the physical life span for styles that can be quite ephemeral, changing in body, acidity, dryness, and so on from month to month, let alone year to year?
I recently got the opportunity to acquire seven well-regarded beers from Russian River Brewing Company, all Belgian or sour styles, all about seven years old. Would these extensively aged (and rather expensive) beers prove to be rare treasures, or was seven years just way too old? There was only one way to find out.
What do we know about aging beer?
Books can and have been written on this subject, but it’s worth reviewing a few basics. Some beer styles require a good amount of time to develop at all, either before packaging (many types of sours) or as part of fermentation in the bottle (strong Belgians). Although it’s not necessarily required, it’s becoming quite common for brewers to age fully fermented beers in barrels, often with adjuncts, to extract and develop additional flavors.
As a result of these processes, a beer could be anywhere from a few months to several years old before it makes it to the taproom or shelf. From the moment a consumer takes it home, the potential for another round of aging opens up. If people choose to age a beer at all, they tend to favor big beers like imperial stouts and barleywines, either to preserve a vintage, soften harsh characteristics, or set up vertical tastings.
What makes a beer ageable?
In the classic Tasting Beer, expert Randy Mosher lists some key factors that make a beer ageable, including these:
- Ales — lagers are generally considered to be best fresh
- Strength – stronger beers have more aging potential, generally, at least 7% alcohol
- Unfiltered or bottle-conditioned – the presence of yeast, according to Mosher, has a “protective effect”
- Sours – but “…you have to like bold, sour beers…as they get more acidic as they age.”
Russian River, circa 2010
The collection I got – four Belgians and three sours – meets at least some of these criteria, but Russian River recommends aging most of them only one to three years, with a maximum of five.
Reviews online suggested that some of the variants were still excellent. (At the
time I made the purchase,
I saw 5-star reviews on Untappd from the previous week.) For other bottles, the reviews were mostly negative. And scariest of all, some variants had no reviews at all – presumably because most of the bottles have been consumed.
No matter the odds, with the amount of change a beer can go through in this time frame, I was going to need a bit of luck for things to come off well.
Thanks to Russian River’s excellent public records and batch labeling system, I was able to get exact bottling dates for most of the set. With that info and a batch of Pepcid in hand, I embarked on my extremely non-scientific exploration: just how long can you age Belgian and sour beers?
Name: Redemption Batch 009
Description: bottle refermented, Belgian “single” (blonde ale)
Age: Bottled 12/22/10, consumed 10/28/17
A nearly 7-year-old single? Uh, oh. Not liking my chances, I got this one out of the way first.
The pale-gold beer pours flat, with no head but some white bubbles at the perimeter.
An aroma of baked apple follows through in the taste, which is also slightly vinous. Cracker malt sets up a dry finish, revealing a bit of oxidation. As it warmed, some unexpected cantaloupe notes surface.
The main victory here: this was not a drain pour! Still, I won’t recommend aging a 5% Belgian blonde any time soon.
Verdict: Not lucky
Name: Supplication Batch 04×1
Description: Sour brown ale aged in pinot noir barrels for 12 to 15 months before bottling with sour cherries, lactobacillus, pediococcus, and brettanomyces
Age: Bottled 12/14/09, consumed 11/2/17
Amazingly, some bubbles leap from the bottle, producing slight carbonation and a bit of lacing. Despite my best efforts, some sediment follows.
Black cherries waft from the glass and turn a bit sour on the palate. Behind that is a blend of dried fruit that keeps the acid at bay. My wife, who is more sensitive to sour beers, took a sip and yelped, so I guess it’s still pretty sour.
Alcohol is present but not cloying, and the body is right where it should be. As the beer warms, the flavors get bigger and better. The Brett, which tends to be suppressed when a beer is too cold, makes its presence known: hay and funk, slightly earthy, perhaps even a bit of umami. An hour in, I’m savoring every drop.
Name: Sanctification Batch 005
Description: Sour golden ale brewed with 100% brettanomyces
Age: Bottled 12/1/10, consumed 11/6/17
This one pours deep gold, almost orange, like unfiltered apple juice. There’s no sediment in the initial pour of 8-9 ounces but a modest mountain of it at the bottom of the bottle. Carbonation is plentiful, with a steady stream of bubbles emanating from the bottom of the glass.
The Brett is clearly the star of the show here, making the air around the pour smell like horse blanket and freshly mown grass.
That said, the flavors are light: this beer’s not at all past its prime. With respect to hazy IPAs, this is my kind of juicy: a very mild white grape juice that’s spent some time in the barn.
Name: Damnation 23, Batch 069
Description: Barrel-aged Belgian golden strong ale (tripel)
Age: bottled late 2011/early 2012 (my estimate), consumed 11/8/17
It was very difficult to get the cork out, and there was some dried material on the neck, which is likely a sign of disturbance and evaporation from the bottle.
It pours a dark, murky amber, with no carbonation, lacing or head.
The aroma is boozy, with the warm, spicy smell of aged rum. Flavor follows suit, offering sorghum, red currants, warming alcohol, mustiness, and a bit of charred oak. In this case, aging basically turned a tripel into a barleywine.
I drank this one on a cold rainy, stressful day, so I’m not going to say “No” to the alcohol, but it had probably seen better days.
Verdict: Lucky enough
Name: Damnation Batch 063
Description: Belgian strong golden ale
Age: Bottled 1/17/11, consumed 11/16/17
The cork smells like golden raisins, which is not a smell I thought I could recognize until I was slapped in the face with it.
There’s actual carbonation this time, along with half a finger’s width of head that hisses and bubbles gently before dissipating at speed. The color is unfamiliar, an amber, almost orange-tinted yellow, like an unfiltered cider.
As with Redemption, my first sensory impression is ripe peaches, though here there’s also minor oxidation and cardboard.
After its odd introduction, the taste is straightforward: sweet, not very clean, with a bit of cloves and nutmeg.
Over time, the body has thinned out too much, leaving even more room for the yeast character than you’d normally find in the style. It’s enough to make it slightly imbalanced, though the net result is still solid.
Verdict: On the line
Name: Consecration Batch 004×2
Description: Sour red ale, wild, aged 4-8 months in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, with currants added
Age: Bottled 2/3/10, consumed 11/20/2017
This one pours completely flat, with a deep red tone that’s probably from the currants. The cork smiles like rich red wine, while the pour smells as musty as an attic corner, if you keep used wine barrels in your attic.
With a taste, it’s clear that we have our first real disappointment: it’s profoundly sour, almost vinegary, with notes of fresh, raw cranberry and enough acidity to make me doubt the wisdom of completing the bottle. Unless you’re a die-hard sour fan, this one is pretty much undrinkable in its aged state.
Verdict: Not lucky
Name: Salvation Batch 10
Description: Belgian dark strong ale, bottle refermented
Age: Bottled 2/15/11, consumed 12/7/17
The final bottle pours 95% flat, with a few bubbles but no noticeable carbonation or lacing. It’s a relatively murky dark brown with some reddish tint.
Dark fruit, jam, and raisins plume from the bottle, the actual pour yielding slight must, a bit of cork, and plums.
That dark fruit follows on the tongue, with plums, raisins, and sweetness generated at least as much from the alcohol as the malt. As the beer warms, the alcohol becomes confrontational, the heat building without anything to counter it. The aged beer’s thin body can’t fight back, so the alcohol ends up dominating.
Verdict: On the line
Final verdict: While freshness certainly matters for most beer styles, it can be worth taking a gamble on a style that allows for some aging. Just don’t judge a particular beer or brewery for a product that’s well past its intended lifespan.
Was I lucky? I tried beers that exposed me to colors, flavors and other sensory experiences I hadn’t encountered before. If you’re someone who likes to explore the world of beer, an experiment like this is almost always worthwhile.
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