Q&A: Beers for Stashing

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“Any recommendations for stash beers?” — Rob G.

This question came up in the context of a Twitter discussion in which someone shared a photo of their collection of special beers inteded for ageing. It included Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Old Chimney’s Good King Henry, Courage Russian Imperial and Lees Harvest Ale, which is a pretty good list to begin with.

Now, we’re not really into ageing beer ourselves, purely because we haven’t got the time, space or money to do it properly, but we’re certainly interested and so have had a go at answering this question. We suspect more useful advice will emerge in the commments.

First, some thoughts on general principles.

One reason for building a collection is to enable comparison over time, either by drinking the same beer at intervals and keeping notes, or by drinking multiple vintages of the same beer in a so-called ‘vertical tasting’. With that in mind it makes sense to focus on better-established breweries that have been producing a big stout or barley wine for some years and look set to continue brewing it for a few years more. That way you should be able to collect a set worth playing with. There’s also a sort of insurance in buying from breweries who know what they’re doing, and whose beer is less likely to reveal flaws and off-flavours over time.

When we spoke to Jezza (@BonsVoeux1) for our recent article on Belgium obsessives in CAMRA’s BEER magazine he mentioned that when stocking his collection of aged and ageing beer he now buys “huge quantities at a time”. That’s because he frequently found himself wishing he’d bought a lot more of a beer as it reached a state of perfection after many years hidden in his cupboard. So we’d say that means looking for beers that aren’t prohibitively expensive and which you can conceive of buying by the case, perhaps with only a bit of wincing and digging around for coppers down the back of the sofa.

Or, to put all that another way, this is one area where ‘boring’, easy-to-buy beers and breweries are probably a safer bet than obscurities.

We found that the Fuller’s Past Masters 1893 Double Stout got better over the course of a couple of years, and the bottle we found in a London pub that must have been three years old was astonishingly good. You won’t find any of that around now but that’s an example of the kind of beer we should have bought a lot more of and left alone. Fuller’s Imperial Stout, a new batch of which is out now, is a similar beer (but not quite as good, in our view) and will probably age in similar ways.

A beer Jezza mentioned as a particular focus of his ageing project was De Dolle Stille Nacht which, when available, can be picked up in the UK for between £4-5 per 330ml bottle. (He has bottles going back to 1989.)

Belgian beers, tending to the strong and sweet, generally age well. (But triples, wheat beers and hop-focused beers probably won’t yield as much from ageing, even if they’ll sell ’em to you at Kulminator.) Rochefort 10 is one we’d consider filling a cellar with, especially if you can pick it up in Belgium at Belgian prices — it’s getting prohibitively expensive in the UK.

Orval (not especially strong or sweet) is one famous example of a beer often drunk aged and which has the benefit of showing its development relatively quickly, over the course of months rather than years. If you bought a batch of twelve every six months, at around £30-40 a go, you’d be able to compare fresh with six-month, with one-year, with two-years, and so on, and soon learn its ways and your own preferences. (It is also good for magically enhancing other beers.)

The Beer Nut’s side project, Stash Killer, is a useful source of knowledge on what time does to specific beers. Of an 8-year-old Westmalle Dubbel, an easy to find, consistent and affordable beer, he says:

There’s sweet sherry in the flavour… which is possibly just oxidation at work, but it does transform the beer in a fun and pleasant way. It hasn’t become magically heavier than usual, but it has elements of the things you find in double-digit dark Belgian-style beers: the fruit, the cake, the rounded estery greasiness, though not the heat. It still remains lightly textured and easy drinking… Seems to me like a handy way to upgrade your Westmalle Dubbel into something more complex is leave it alone for a few years.

That sounds like something we’ll have to try. Do look at his other posts for more suggestions.

If you want to read something more substantial on this we recommend Patrick Dawson’s 2014 book Vintage Beer which contains detailed notes on how to age beer, what to expect from the process, general advice on which types of beer generally age well, as well as tips on which specific beers to buy.

Now, to those comments — tell us, what’s worked for you?

Questions & Answers: How Long do Vintage Beers Keep?

“How long do old beers keep before becoming undrinkable? I recently came across some old bottles I’d forgotten about including a Whitbread Celebration Ale from 1992 and Teignworthy Edwin Tucker’s Victorian Stock Ale (2000 vintage), the label of which says it ‘is designed to mature and improve in the bottle over several decades’. It’s 16 years old now – will it get any better? In what way?” — Brian, Exeter

We’ve had mixed experiences of drinking really old beer. A c.1980 bottle of Adnams’s Tally Ho barley wine that we picked up in a junk shop was interesting but, ultimately, a bit grim; while a dusty, tatty bottle of 30-year-old imperial stout we drank at Kulminator in Antwerp was one of the best things we’ve ever tasted.

Whitbread Celebration Ale from 1992 was, said Martyn Cornell, still tasting good in 2011. Others have found plenty to enjoy in beers from 1902 and even (Martyn Cornell again) from 1875:

Amazingly, there was still a touch of Burtonian sulphur in the nose, together with a spectrum of flavours that encompassed pears, figs, liquorice, charred raisins, stewed plums, mint, a hint of tobacco, and a memory of cherries. It was dark, powerful and still sweet…

Edwin Tucker Stock Ale 2000 vintage label.

But there isn’t much information out there about how Edwin Tucker’s Stock Ale in particular is responding to ageing — there are no reviews on RateBeer, for example. Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones did write an impressionistic review a while back, though, so we asked his advice. He says:

I had one in 2013 and then another I think a year later and it was starting to turn. I would suggest drinking now and hope for a sherry-like character.

In general, extreme ageing of beers would seem to be, in technical terms, a mug’s game, and even strong ales brewed with cellaring in mind begin to lose their sparkle after a while. Patrick Dawson, the author of the definitive book on this subject, 2014’s Vintage Beer, says in Chapter 3:

A decent English barley wine will easily continue to develop positive characteristics for 6 to 8 years, with some examples capable of 10 to 15 years. Exceptional versions have been known to go 50-plus years in the proper conditions, but very few beers are currently being brewed… to justify this amount of ageing.

We emailed Mr Dawson to see if he had any specific advice in this case. He says:

Well, I have to be honest and say that I’ve never had the privilege to try an Edwin Tucker’s Stock Ale, so I can’t give a specific recommendation. However, I will say that 16 years is a long, long time for a beer to mature. It takes an incredibly special beer to develop positively past this point. Cantillon’s Gueuze, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, and the Bass Corker barleywines being a few notable examples. When presented with this situation, of an unknown beer that has been aged a long time already, I always say to open it. My logic is that it’s better for a beer a bit too young and brash, than over-the-hill and dull.

So, to summarise, don’t sit on special beers for too long or they’ll probably cease to be special. After all, you can’t take them with you.

Note: Brian’s question edited for brevity and clarity. Updated 08/04/2016 to add Patrick Dawson’s email advice.

Chalky's Bite Improves with Age

In a recent tasting, Zak Avery compared Sharp’s Chalky’s Bite to Koelsch, which spurred us on to open the last bottle of a case we were given as a gift a year ago. In honour of Zak’s comparison, we drank it from Koelsch glasses.

chalkysbite

In a recent tasting, Zak Avery compared Sharp’s Chalky’s Bite to Koelsch, which spurred us on to open the last bottle of a case we were given as a gift a year ago. In Zak’s honour, we drank it from Koelsch glasses.

We pretty quickly decided that we didn’t really see any similarity although we take Zak’s point about the cold conditioning of top-fermented beer.

What we also noted was that it had aged beautifully. It was nice enough fresh, but after a year mellowing in the ‘cellar’ (garage), it knocked us for six. Without a fresh one for comparison, it’s hard to say what had changed, but our feeling was that it had lost some bitterness, become rounder and less brash — like a classy Belgian blonde.

We’d be interested to hear any suggestions for other British beers, apart from the usual suspects, that age well.