Despite craft beer’s growing ubiquity across our fine state, most casual drinkers are unaware that certain beers age as gracefully as fine wines—but with lower price tags, greater accessibility and more variety to boot.
Indeed, the phrase “vintage beer” runs contrary to most people’s ideas about the storage and consumption of Colorado’s favorite beverage, and, in a way, rightly so.
“Hoppy beer, any kind of beer—drink it now,” says Jensen Cummings, Denver chef and Certified Cicerone (a sommelier for beer). “But there is something really unique about the way beers evolve, and that’s something that should be celebrated.”
Undoubtedly, the majority of beer is meant to be consumed as soon as possible after being packaged. This is because beer is usually rather low in alcohol, and brewing ingredients are sensitive to time and the elements—especially the Centennial State’s favorite ingredient, hops. Just ask Taylor Lees, head brewer at Denver’s Great Divide Brewing Company.
“Generally speaking, as beer ages, the first thing to go is the hop aroma and flavor. And by ‘go,’ I don’t always mean ‘disappear.’ Oftentimes, the hop character can become unpleasant,” Lees says.
The wonderful hop flavor and aroma that people love in IPAs and pale ales also lend themselves to off-flavor production under the wrong conditions. Hops are responsible for creating the somewhat common “skunky” aromas and flavors in beer, and as hops oxidize with age, they can produce a stale paper and wet cardboard funk.
However, other elements in beer age quite nicely. Some of the best beers for cellaring are darker, malt-laden brews like imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales or barleywines (which, although often hoppy, have enough of a malt foundation to age with dignity). In these beers, that same process of oxidation can yield a sherry- or port-like character, along with more perceived sweetness, increased notes of caramel and fruit and an elegant softness that doesn’t always exist in the fresh versions.
“We age our Yeti Imperial Stout, Old Ruffian Barley Wine, and Hibernation Old Ale on a consistent basis,” says Lees. “The beers simply change as a result of staling and oxidation in a way that some people find enjoyable.”
These somewhat subjective changes in aged beer have spawned a few different schools of thought in the brewing industry on vintage beer, with some brewers adamantly opposed to it. But for Erik Peterson, proprietor of Denver’s Bull & Bush Brewery—and a roughly 7,000-bottle beer cellar—the unexpected evolution of beer flavors is what makes vintage beer so exciting.
“I don’t think beer necessarily gets ‘better’—you know, they say with wine, ‘cellar this away and it’ll get better and drink it in five or 10 years,’” Peterson says.
“I think it [vintage beer] just changes; the flavor profile changes, and that’s what’s fun, seeing all the different flavors come out of it.”
The educational and revelatory aspects of vintage beer, as well as its accessible start-up price, make starting a beer cellar at home an attractive option for many beer fans. But most importantly, it’s fun.
“That’s the important thing with all of this—with cellaring beer, with being a beer geek, going through the Cicerone program—is that it’s completely subjective when it comes to drinking beer,” says Cummings. “We like drinking beer because it’s simple to enjoy. If we don’t enjoy the beer, then what’s the point?”
Three Colorado Beers to start your cellar with: 1.Great Divide Brewing’s Yeti Imperial Stout; 2.Avery Brewing’s The Beast Grand Cru; 3.Left Hand Brewing’s Widdershins Barleywine.