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Expand Your Palate with These Barrel-Aged Beers

Lay some bottles down now: cellar-brate later!


Several San Diego breweries have released special age-worthy bottlings recently. | Photo by Bruce Glassman / Shutterstock

When you visit a brewery and take that first sip of beer—straight from the tanks and made only feet from where you sit—you fully appreciate the deliciousness that comes fresh from a brewery tap. Most breweries make beers that are meant to be enjoyed as soon as they are finished fermenting and are carbonated. But not all beers are meant to provide such immediate gratification. Some beers, in fact, are meant to sit in a barrel or a bottle for a while, allowing the passage of time to help them evolve into more complex, even more delicious beverages.

I’m happy to report that, during the past few months, a whole bunch of my favorite breweries have released special age-worthy bottlings of one kind or another. Many of these bottlings—which tend to be small batches and very limited in availability—are beers for which the brewers have dedicated extra time and resources in an effort to create special brews that can be aged and enjoyed over time. Some beers have been aged in bourbon or whiskey barrels for months. Others have been soured and barrel aged. Still others have been “funkified” with brettanomyces or some other yeast strains so they will develop exotic, complex aromas and flavors over the course of the coming months and even years.

Some highlights of recent special bottle releases I’ve found include:

  • Barrelmaster’s Reserve of Lustrous Frumento with Coffee from Cellar 3 (a double stout that’s rested in bourbon barrels for 30 months)
  • Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Brown from New English
  • AleSmith’s Private Stock Ale (a big, malty olde ale that will supposedly improve with aging for up to 20 years)
  • Ten Mile Imperial Porter from Pure Project (aged in bourbon barrels)
  • Aztec’s Funk #Four (a barrel-aged amber infused with black currants and “funk” from a Flanders yeast strain)
  • Societe’s The Swindler (a sour “feral ale” aged in wine barrels)
  • Amplified’s Drunken Barrel #1 Sour Belgian Pale Ale

The beer in most of these bottlings has already been aged to some extent, so most could be consumed right away or in the near future. But these are also beers that will develop wonderful nuances if they’re allowed to sit for a while.

If you haven’t yet tasted a great aged beer—barrel-aged or not—it’s a palate-expanding experience I highly recommend. These days, many breweries will have some kind of barrel-aged offering on tap, especially if you visit during a special event. Bigger breweries, such as Stone, Ballast Point, and Green Flash are likely to have some kind of special beer on tap on a regular basis. Others, such as Cellar 3 and AleSmith, have dedicated a good portion of their resources to offering barrel-aged beers as part of their regular lineups. [AleSmith just launched Anvil & Stave, which is a small venue within their large tasting room that offers a stunning variety of amazing barrel-aged beers, including specialty blends and blends that visitors can actually create themselves.]

Despite the preponderance of barrel-aged beer, barrels are not the only way to enjoy beer that has been improved by time. Many beers—especially the heavier, malty styles such as barley wines, quads, wee heavys, and Scotch ales—can simply be laid down in bottles and enjoyed over the course of years. I’ve personally been astounded at the evolution of a few bottles I have found tucked away in the dark corners of my cellar: Stone’s Old Guardian Barley Wine, Green Flash’s Barley Wine, Karl Strauss’s Full Suit Belgian, Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea, and AleSmith’s Old Numbskull to name a few. After a few years, these beers developed delicious burnt caramel, nutty, sherry, and raisin aromas and flavors and have mellowed into smooth, rich, viscous elixirs. These are flavors not readily available when you bring a bottle home from the brewery and pop it open that same night.

You can start your own “vertical” collection by grabbing an extra bottle of barley wine, Belgian quad, wee heavy, imperial stout, or any kind of sour, and socking it away in a safe place for a while.

If you haven’t been aging beers for the past few years, all is not lost. Once in a while, a brewery will do a “vertical” tasting, which is a collection of beers from various years all sampled together. Stone sometimes does vertical tastings of Old Guardian, for example, where you can taste the beer from “vintages” dating back ten or more years. You can start your own “vertical” collection by grabbing an extra bottle of barley wine, Belgian quad, wee heavy, imperial stout, or any kind of sour, and socking it away in a safe place for a while. Just make sure your storage is cool (not refrigerated; between 50º and 70º F. is ideal), as dark as possible (no direct sunlight!), and free of vibration. [If you’re not sure whether a particular bottle is worthy of aging, just ask a knowledgeable brewery staffer or bottle shop proprietor.] As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to keep your collection limited to the sours or the darker, maltier beers. The lighter styles (pilsners, pale ales, IPAs, wheat beers) are generally not great candidates for aging. You want those beers as fresh as they can be. [There are exceptions, of course. Stone’s Enjoy After Brett IPAs come to mind; these are designed to evolve in the bottle over the course of many months.]

So, here’s my suggestion: The next time you’re at a brewery, keep an eye out for any special bottle releases that may be available. If you see one, you might want to consider grabbing it to lay down for a while. Chances are the bottle will be a little more expensive than the others, and owning it will require great patience and self-control on your part. But, in the end (6 months later? 1 year later? 5 years later?) you will be justly rewarded. Your valiant sacrifices will yield a beer-tasting experience that is uniquely delicious and not possible without the slow (sometimes painfully slow) passage of precious time.   

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