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Cellared beer: When fresh doesn't mean better

Nigel Springthorpe the co-owner the Alibi Room which has a small cellar of local brews seen here in Vancouver.

John Lehmann/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Scott Hawthorn, a former investment banker turned cultural entrepreneur, is intrigued by the alchemy of small spaces. So when the Vancouver developer – who counts Salt Tasting Room, Judas Goat Taberna, Native Shoes and the 120-square-foot Parking Spot art gallery among his many eclectic ventures – began experimenting with aging beer, he turned to his hobby farm in the Okanagan Valley.

At the edge of a working cherry orchard on the Naramata Bench, he dug a 12-foot-deep hole in the side of a steep grassy slope last summer, and poured it with concrete to build a bunker. In a few days, the intrepid cellarist will fill the dank cavern with a treasure chest of specialty beer: three jeroboams and six magnums of Chimay Belgium Ale Grande Réserve Blue Label, several champagne-style corked bottles of Phillips 10 Year Anniversary Imperial IPA, various lambics and other winter-warming odds and ends.

"I'm going to bury it all underground and forget it about it for a while," he says. Mr. Hawthorn began researching aged beer when building Bitter, a new Gastown beer bar set to open in late December, where he hopes to offer vertical tastings. "In a few years, I'll take some out and see what mysteries unfold."

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He's is a charter member of the growing legion of brave beer enthusiasts exploring the new world of old brews. Contrary to popular belief many strong beers, much like fine wine, have the capacity to evolve, develop complex aromas and flavours, and improve over time, if cellared properly.

In North America, beer drinkers often assume that fresh means better. And for most of the mass-produced lager consumed here, this is true. But there are certain beer styles, mostly those with a high-alcohol content – barley wines, Russian imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales and bottle-conditioned ales – that age gracefully.

"The aggressiveness of the alcohol and the bitterness of the hops die down, the sweetness of the malt becomes more apparent, and the viscosity thickens up," says Chris Bonaille, beer supervisor at Vancouver's Legacy Liquor Store, which celebrated its opening with a cellaring seminar last spring.

"It's still a niche market," he adds, noting that his store doesn't have a dedicated vintage section. "But there are customers coming in … for the big-alcohol beers and seasonal releases that you would sip after dinner by the fireside."

The rarefied taste for aged beer can be attributed to the wider craft beer renaissance in North America, one which has reawakened an artisanal beer-making heritage wiped out by Prohibition and the subsequent consolidation of large, commercial breweries. Increasingly, New World microbrewers are experimenting with Old World styles that benefit from maturation.

"A lot of the beer styles that are suitable for cellaring were almost a dead style," explains Brian Morin, the owner of Toronto's Beerbistro, which boasts an impressive reserve list of Cantillon geuze, a blended, second-bottle-fermented lambic made by one of Belgium's legendary family breweries.

"The longer you put them down, the softer the notes," he says of the 750-ml vintages, some of which he's been sitting on for six years and sell for $30 to $60.

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At the Alibi Room in Vancouver, co-owner Nigel Springthorpe has laid down a small collection of local barley wines and strong stouts. When aficionados and beer tourists come in searching for unique tipples, he will often suggest Singularity, a Russian imperial stout from Victoria's Driftwood Brewing Company that's been aged for a year in bourbon barrels.

"Doesn't it taste toasty and roasty?" he sighs, savouring a smooth mouthful of the dark, thick, 12-per-cent heavy hitter that begins oozing even more caramel, coconut and chocolate-covered cherry nuances after warming up in a tulip glass. "This is a world-class beer that can be put down for as long as you want. It's not going to spoil, though it will probably peak a few times."

The aging process is not steady trajectory, he explains. "It's a bit of a roller-coaster ride." At first, the hop bite fades and the alcohol burn subsides, giving the beer a more mellow roundness – as we tasted with the Singularity. But then the yeast cells die and an enzymatic reaction called autolysis releases a funky, albeit temporary, beef-stocky flavour and burnt-rubber smell.

"Like this," Mr. Springthorpe grimaces, swallowing an extremely malty 2007 barley wine from Longwood Brewing on Vancouver Island, the oldest beer in his cellar. "This is intense," he says of the syrupy suds that taste like a heavily smoked porter. But with longer aging – perhaps a few months, maybe a year – he predicts that the autolysis will pass, the hard edges will melt away, the malt will come through and the beer will taste more balanced again.

Because beer aging in North America is still in its infancy, cellaring is not an exact science. Other than the Beer Advocate and, there are very few resources that offer advice as to how long a beer should be stored.

"That's part of the adventure," Mr. Hawthorn says.

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"In a time when the younger generation is twittering and tweeting and has absolutely no patience, the concept of cellaring may be lost on them. But if you're the type of person who believes in aging things, a deeper gratification can come to those that wait."



The aging of beer isn't an exact science. But by selecting the right styles and creating an ideal climate, you can tilt the sands of time in your favour.

Brews to Choose

Pick beer that is 8 per cent or stronger and low in hops. As the residual sugars tend to soften over time, go for dark, malty beer, and ensure it's bottle-conditioned with live yeast.

Buy in bulk

Buy at least two bottles of each beer. Drink one immediately, and take notes so you'll have a comparison by which to judge the aged version. Try a second bottle after six to 12 months.

Dark is best

Beer is photosensitive and glass bottles let in UV rays, which lead to skunky decontamination. While underground storage is ideal, a wine fridge or closet works just as well.

Not so frosty

Beer should be cellared at 10 to 15 C (slightly warmer than wine), with minimal temperature fluctuation.

Keep it moist

If there's not enough humidity, the corks will dry out. If there's too much humidity, black mould will creep in. Invest in a humidifier to keep the moisture level between 50 and 70 per cent.

Stand up or lay down?

Though the topic is hotly contested, most enthusiasts believe that cellared beer should remain upright to decrease exposure to oxygen. Unlike wine, which rests on its side to keep corks moist, the long storage of beer can create a yeast ring, which will create an off-flavoured sediment when poured.

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