Monday, January 6, 2014

The “Christmas Past” Experiment

In 2012, I saw a message from Dogfish Head Brewing that cellaring beer can alter and enhance its flavor.  I’d also heard from a representative of North Coast Brewing that the original India Pale Ales contained high hops levels because this helped preserve the beer for its long journey from England to India, but also because the hops level in the flavor tended to decline over time.  While Dogfish Head didn’t recommend cellaring IPAs, I had to wonder if doing so would “mellow” the hops bitterness in a hoppier beer style.  As long-time readers of this blog know, I’m not a fan of hoppier beers.

With these thoughts in mind, I hatched an experiment.  I purchased two bottles of the Christmas 2012 vintage of Rogue Ales’ Santa’s Private Reserve ale.  Rogue’s site says “Rogue’s annual holiday offering, Santa’s Private Reserve, is a variation of the classic Saint Rogue Red, but with double the hops—including Hops and Barley grown and harvested at Rogue Farms.”  By default, this is a beer with a 74 IBU rating out of the gate.  How would it taste after  year of cellaring?  And how would that compare to a fresh bottle?  Would the hops level decline?  Would the flavor change dramatically?  Would it gain any complexity or subtlety?

To begin the experiment, I chilled the 2012 bottle after cellaring for a year and purchased a fresh 2013 bottle which was immediately chilled.  I poured both bottles into serving glasses at the same time.

The aroma of the 2013 bottle was definitely hoppy, with a strong pine note to it.  The 2012 bottle had a sweet, malty aroma to it.  The pine aroma was almost completely gone from the 2012.
Both bottles poured to the same reddish-brown color with a beige head.  The head on the 2012 seemed to last forever, and seemed somewhat more coarse than that of the 2013.  The head on the 2013 bottle dissipated fairly quickly, leaving behind a bit of sheet-like lacing that evaporated to dots.  The 2012 left behind a thick sheet of foam-like lacing that slid down into the beer occasionally like an avalanche down a mountain side.  It’s almost a disturbingly thick layer of lacing.  I remember the 2012 bottle I had (when it was fresh and not a year old) having so much head that it came out the top of the bottle before I could get it poured.  That was the case with this bottle as well. The 2013 bottle did not have that problem.

The flavor of the 2013 matches up well to the Rogue description.  It’s primarily hoppy, with a pine-like bitter finish that lingers long after you stop drinking.  If you’ve tasted anything Rogue makes, you know that their products are generally very hop-forward.  There’s not much complexity to the 2013.  It’s primarily hoppy, with a sweet malt in the far background.  The flavor is also crisp and clean.  It’s not a particularly complex or nuanced flavor to me.  I would liken it to any other IPA or overly-hopped Red Ale I’ve ever had.

The flavor of the 2012 is different.  It’s primarily malty.  I’d describe it as maybe a 60% malt, 40% hops flavor.  The 2013, in contrast, is probably a 90% hops, 10% malt flavor.  For someone like me who prefers a less-hoppy beer, the year-old Santa’s Private Reserve is easier to drink and more pleasant.  It’s still hoppy, no doubt about it, but nothing like its fresher cousin, the 2013.  The 2012 also seems to have a mineral note to it that reminds me of well water (versus municipal tap water).  The finish is still bitter, but less intense and lingering than the 2013.  The 2012 is a bit creamier and less “clean” on the palate than the 2013.

So, the bottom line here is that cellaring does seem to lower the hops level of a beer significantly over the course of a year.  It took this 74 IBU beast down to something noticeably lower.  If I had to estimate, I’d put it in the 35 IBU range, or maybe even as low as 26-30.  That’s quite a difference.
I cellared a second bottle of the 2012 vintage.  I’m planning to pick up a 2013 bottle to cellar, and then compare it to a fresh 2014 vintage later in the year.  I’ll plan to report on it around Christmas time.

I’ve cellared a few other beers, too, to see how those fare after a year or so.  I’ll report on them when they reach the one-year mark.  I’m going to think about this as I encounter beers that, for my taste, are a touch too hoppy.  Would cellaring a beer that I find too hoppy take down to ideal levels?  Maybe.  It’s worth a try, especially if I’ve already bought the beer or think it’s just “that close” to perfect.

Have you cellared any beers?  How did that turn out for you?  Share in the comments.

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