By: Marty Nachel

 

 

An Upright Purpose for Aging Beer

 

Surely you’ve heard or read about well-publicized vertical tastings of special beers. These exclusive events usually draw rabid crowds of beer lovers and exact sizeable fees for the privilege of participating in them.

What sets these tastings apart from regular beer tastings is the “vertical” part of the equation. This means is that a singular brand of beer is sampled from various vintages, or previous annual offerings. The automatic implication –and sometimes incorrect assumption– is that the particular beer being sampled is of notable heft and character and can handle aging well. Not even the beer gods can guarantee the outcome, however, so one can only predict and hope for a positive results.

The key to successful vertical tastings, then, is to have several years’ worth of a particular beer lined up for sampling at one time. For obvious reasons, it takes several trips around the sun to build up this kind of supply; patience and expendable income are virtual requisites. But waiting years and investing in an inventory like this is usually worth it. Not only is the much-awaited tasting a sublime gustatory experience, but it’s an educational opportunity without equal. Vertical tastings are, without a doubt, the optimal way to learn about the vagaries of aging beer.

The two most important considerations in planning a successful vertical tasting are: 1), choosing the appropriate beer or beer style, and 2), having a reasonable number of annual representations on hand for tasting.

Beers styles that should not be saved for vertical tastings include simpler beers known for being fresh and delicate, or those that feature juicy or bright fruit or spice character, and, especially, beers that boast of exceptional hop aroma and flavor. To allow these to mature beyond their typical window of freshness would be an unfortunate and ill-advised waste of time and money; it would be akin to allowing bakery-fresh bread to go stale.

The beer styles that do lend themselves best to vertical tastings are, for example, those with high original gravities and resulting alcohol contents; the maltier, the better. Grain complexity is invaluable to the flavor profile, as is firm hop bittering. Think old ales, barleywines, Belgian quadrupels, Imperial stouts and just about anything that’s already seen the inside of a barrel. And don’t overlook the mostly positive and intriguing effect of aging sour beers over the long-term, either.

To fully appreciate Father Time’s contribution to this palate-pleasing process, you should have at least five or six vintages for sampling and you should taste them in the correct age progression –preferably from youngest to oldest for maximal palate effect and educational value. It’s essential to experience the clean and lively flavors of the brewery-fresh sample of any given beer before exploring and evaluating the more elderly editions of that particular beer.

One final word of caution: because boozier beers tend to make the best candidates for a vertical tasting, be sure to moderate their consumption lest it quickly become a horizontal tasting.