“The Art of Survival”: A primer for cellaring beers
February 12, 2004
I had every intention of heading out to do what I now call “research Friday” but my plans were dashed by some of the worst New England weather we have had all year. With the roads covered in ice, I figured I would make good use of the shut-in time and spend the night at home with the family. I lit the fire, put on some Pink Floyd, and headed to the fridge for a cold beer. Much to my dismay, my trip into the garage only resulted in finding a fridge full of crap!
I couldn’t call this a buzz kill; I didn’t even have a buzz yet. The reason for the bad-beer fridge is that my “friends” drop by my house with 12 packs of cheap lagers, leaving their yellow beer to take up space in my fridge, as they waddle down my driveway with a belly full of my Trappist and Barley Wine. Don’t get me wrong I don’t mind hooking my buddies up with good beers but the swill they leave takes up room in my beer fridge and creates the illusion of having enough beer. I’m staring at a fridge of light American lagers and believe it or not, Miller Highlife. A death-defying drive on the icy roads is sounding better and better to me, but I am buried here in New Hampshire and it’s a 3 mile ride to get Heineken, 7 miles to get real beer.
There is no way I am going to spend a Friday night with a house full of kids and two nutty dogs with no damn beer! As I’m about to snap, it hits me. This is the time I have planed for; it’s finally time to hit my private stock. This is the stuff my best of friends rarely see. My good beer!
I have a bit of vintage beer and big beers “cellared” or as some people say “laying down” in the basement. I know what a lot of you are thinking. You’ve been bombarded by Madison Avenue about “fresh beer” tastes and born on dates. Fresh is great in most cases, but when it comes to beer, nothing beats a Barley Wine or Trappist that has been hiding in a cool dark corner of the basement for a year or two.
When selecting beers to cellar it’s important to take a few things into consideration. First, you want a beer with a lot of alcohol or a huge amount of hops. IPAs or India Pale Ales were English Ales that were hopped at a higher rate to help preserve them during the long trip to India. I have a few Dogfish Head 90 minute and Dogfish Head 120 minute IPAs sitting in the basement next to my Imperial Stouts and Barley Wines. I also have some great bottle conditioned beers down there. Bottle conditioned beers have newly fermented beer, sugar and/or live yeast is added during the bottling allowing the beer to further ferment and mature in the bottle.
Cellaring is not for the purpose of stockpiling beer simply for nights like this one, there are a host of different flavors that come out or mellow out over time. Much to our chagrin, beer also goes up in price. That case of 2003 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine you bought for 35 dollars last year could easily fetch 50 dollars this year and even more the year after. Personally, I do not cellar beers for financial gain, but for survival. If those aliens from Independence Day ever do land, I wont be in a Jeep playing hero with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, I’ll be bunkered down in my basement with my Louisville Slugger in one hand and a Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine in the other.
I have a few favorites downstairs to pick from. There’s Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout. This is a vintage beer, if you look at the label on the neck it will tell you the winter it was brewed. I have a Fullers Vintage beer gift set that has a vertical of ales from the years 1999, 2000 and 2001. One of the most interesting vintage beers I have is Stone Vertical Epic Ale. The first of these ales were released February 2nd 2002 (02.02.02), followed by a release on March 3rd 2003 (03.03.03), the last beer of this series will be released December 12th 2012 (12.12.12). The day of the final release you are supposed to sit back and sample all 10 years.
Another beer I have stocked is Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine in which I failed to follow the proper cellaring instructions. The brewer suggests you put the beer in a Ziploc bag, dig a three-foot hole, bury the beer, and dig it up a year later. Way too much work for me, especially with the frozen tundra in my back yard. I try to keep it simple… Bottles with caps stand straight up, bottles with corks lay on their side so the cork doesn’t dry out. If you’re interested in cellaring some brews, find a nice cool place to store your beer in a basement or a closest, and always remember that light is a beer’s worst enemy.
Here are my survival beer picks for your basement bomb shelter or emergency command center:
Thomas Hardy’s Ale vin.1998 – This was a hard barley wine to find until recently. One of the only places to find it was on Ebay. My bottle poured a golden amberish color with a nice solid head. The fragrance is malty with delicate floral hops, it finishes with an oaky, sweet, sherry flavor.
Commercial Announcement: Phoenix is pleased to report that Thomas Hardy’s Ale and Royal Oak Pale Ale are at last returning to these shores. Barring any shipping delays—they’re on the water now—the first shipment of both beers will arrive in Baltimore on February 16th. Consequently, both beers should start appearing in stores, pubs and restaurants in most markets by early March. Be forewarned, however, that stock of the 2003 vintage of Hardy’s is extremely limited. If you miss getting some, you’ll have to wait until September, when greater stocks of the 2004 will be available.
Fullers Vintage Ale vin. 1999, 200 & 2001 – This is a pretty good deal seeing you get three 18.6 oz bottles in a gift pack for around $21. That gives me plenty of beer to share with my buddies Will and Jeff. This English Strong Ale has the perfect balance of plum- like fruit flavors balanced by hops and malt. Each bottle had a beautiful amber color with a modest off-white head.
Commercial Description: Vintage Ale is a truly classic and distinguished bottle-conditioned ale. Each vintage is a blend of that year’s finest malt and hops creating a unique limited edition brew. Following the success of Vintage Ale over the past 6 years, Fuller’s have once again produced a very limited quantity Vintage Ale brew for 2003. Being bottle conditioned, it is after bottling that the flavors truly begin to develop, and continue to do so well beyond the best before date that we are obliged to state. Here at Fuller’s, we recently opened (in the interests of research, of course) a bottle of the 1998 Vintage: it tasted better than ever so stock up on 2003 Vinatage Ale now, you’ll be glad you did in years to come!
Ommegang – This is one of my favorite American beers. Made in Cooperstown, NY, home of the Baseball Hall Of Fame, this beer has all of the “Trappist” taste without the Trappist price due to international tariffs and distribution costs. It has the same rich deep brown color topped by a thick lasting head. The aroma is of raisins and plums along with some toffee hints.
Commercial Description: Ommegang is a classic Abbey-style ale inspired by the centuries-old brewing traditions of the Trappist monks of Belgium. Dark and aromatic, it goes great with cheeses, roasted meets, and savory sauces.
And my number one pick for a national disaster or alien invasion is:
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine vin. 2003 – This is a very unique Barley Wine. It has Sierra Nevada’s signature hop combination of Chinook, Centennial, and Cascade hops. If you like any of Sierra Nevada’s other products I guarantee you will love this beer. Being released in March once per year for a couple of months makes this a hard beer to find. Now is the time to keep your eyes open for this classic. The cascade hops lend their signature piney, citrus aroma while the centennial lend very earthy tones. The citrus flavors balance the sweetness of the barley wine perfectly and the 9.6% ABV is very well hidden in this brew so it doesn’t give you an overwhelming alcohol taste. This is a great first barley wine for anyone how would like to explore this style of beer. Once again, being an American beer, it is cheaper than its foreign counterparts. I have found this gem for as little as $35 per case.
Commercial Description: Bigfoot Ale is an award-winning example of the traditional barleywine ale style. It boasts a dense, fruity bouquet; an extremely rich, intense palate; and a deep, reddish-brown color. This ale is superbly balanced between an almost overpowering maltiness and a wonderfully bittersweet hoppiness.