Can craft beer age?

And there I was, wine aficionado surrounded by craft beer lovers on a hot spring evening at Café Servaas. The occasion? A craft beer tasting on the evolution of beer through ageing.

Hosted by Bas Schampers from the Bourgondische Bierkelder, a Certified Diploma Beer Sommelier which is apparently an internationally recognized title requiring study abroad in beer nation Austria.

It turned out to be an interesting evening.

The Greek and Romans already knew that some wines became better after substantial ageing. The famous Roman Falernian from Campania, for example, needed a couple of decades to reach its full potential.

Wine can age with sufficient acidity, tannins and/or residual sugar. Most wine produced nowadays is meant to be drunk within one or two years. Only a few wines can age for over 10 years and transform into even better wines over time. Think Barolo, Hermitage, Bordeaux Cru, Burgundy, top whites made from Riesling & Chenin Blanc or botrytised dessert wines like Sauternes.

Can beer age?
Yes, but like with wine, not all beers are eligible for ageing. According to Bas, it takes sugar and a minimum alcohol level of 8% for beers to be able to age properly. The million dollar question should be: will aged beer improve through ageing?

Unfortunately, little is still known about the ageability of beer. That’s why Bas wants to store all kinds of beers in his centuries’ old convent cellar to experience how they evolve. Through sales and guided tastings of aged beers he hopes to earn a burgundian living.

Bas presented different styles of ageing and kicked off with a Aventinus Weizen Bock from German brewery Schneider Weisse, the oldest double bock from Bavaria. Regular bock beer should be drunk within 3 years, as this carries not enough alcohol for ageing.

We tasted an Aventinus from 2016 and 2012. The latter showed clear oxidative notes of walnut and bread dough. Although I’m a huge fan of oxidative wines like oloroso sherry, madeira or certain orange wines, this beer didn’t do it for me and was way past its height.

Next stop Iceland, for the Borg Brugghus Judas. This is a quadrupel beer that was aged for 6 months in ex-Cognac barrels. This is like the NBA finals in overtime, lots of stuff going on. Cherry coke meets Godiva chocolate. Too sweet for my taste, but nevertheless interesting style.

The cherry train kept riding for the next stop, an Aged Red and Aged Pale from Belgian brewery Petrus. Aged in big, oak casks with added cherries for the Red. We were challenged to blend our own Petrus by adding a little Aged Pale to the Aged Red. Sweet and sour, utterly refreshing, no man should be ashamed again to order fruit beer. Go for an Aged Red.

Hertog Jan
Dutch Hertog Jan is one of those breweries that store their own beer in their cellars to witness ageing first hand. We tasted their Grand Prestige, a quadrupel with over 10% alcohol from the years 2017, 2014 and 2011. These showed less oxidation than the Aventinus Weizenbock from the first flight.

The fresh 2017 was too sticky for me, the 2011 too acid, having lost much of its pleasant aroma’s. The 2014 was the winner with beautifully integrated aroma’s. Funny enough, the majority of tasters preferred the 2011.

We finished with the beer HJA15/2 from the Hertog Jan Ongekend (rare) series. This unfiltered beer is unique because of an aging period of 1 year in tank, where normally 4-6 weeks would suffice. They even built a special horizontal tank to make this possible. Best beer of the evening!

Not all beers tasted were able to survive many years in a cool cellar. But then again, that was the purpose of this tasting, since there is no information available from brewers.

The lively discussion proved that the concept of beer ageing is still very fresh. There were many unanswered questions, like is glass the best container for aged beers, which stopper is best, what is the best way to store beer: horizontal/vertical, what exactly happens with sugar during ageing, etc.

Perhaps too early to save space in your wine cellar, but aged craft beer will certainly become a cherished asset for many winelovers.

To show what true ageing means, a bottle of 1994 Madeira Verdelho was passed around. Lovely glass, lively and exciting sweet and sour play. Beer has a long way to go…

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