For a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and an active CAMRA member for a number of years, bottles of beer seem to have accumulated at home because, like most members, I tend to drink beer in pubs more than at home. The ‘lockdown’ seemed a good opportunity to explore the depths of our shed, remove the spiders and cobwebs, and see what was there. Fortunately, this dangerous undertaking produced rewards and I entered into the wonderland that is the great tastes of aged beer.
But let’s start with what happens when a beer ages. This knowledge can help the drinker to be forewarned of the risks when they dare to open a dusty bottle, sometimes either with no BBE (best before end) or one that has worn away with time!
Different beers age at different rates, with temperature playing a big part but also the amount of oxygen that is in the beer, with lower levels (obviously) reducing oxidation. Oxygenation often gives cardboard notes. Careful processing, to reduce the oxygen in the beer before bottling and secondary fermentation (bottled conditioned beers) can help; the live yeast helps scavenge oxygen (amongst other positive things). With ageing, one of the most noticeable changes is in the reduction of hoppy and bitter notes. This is why for beers such as American style golden ales, where hops are the ‘hero’, the brewer recommends the beer is drunk fresh.
Also, when a beer ages, there is an increase in sweet, caramel, toffee notes and, if the beer is left long enough, it can become sherry-like. I once had a beer that was 70 years old and it tasted like Madeira wine. As a rule of thumb, stronger beers, (those around 6% ABV plus), are more likely to be drinkable when more than two years old. There are exceptions however; I had a bottle of bottle conditioned Titanic Stout, only 4.5% ABV, that was perfectly drinkable at three years old while, in comparison, a Hop Back Summer Lightning, a blond beer at 5% ABV, which, although being bottled conditioned and of a similar age, was very cardboard. It did make a great base for gravy for pork though!
Regardless of the alcohol content, treat with caution any beer stored in clear glass bottles (rather than green or brown). The light (even artificial light) leads to the development of ‘skunk’ flavours. If you want to try it for yourself, put a bottle of Shepherd Neame on the windowsill and try it after a few months (maybe best to smell it first!).
Finally, some beers will go through a quality curve, deteriorating in flavour before improving. One reason for this is the development, and then fading, of a growth called ribes which gives catty or blackcurrant notes.
So, armed with this knowledge, I delved into my Aladdin’s beer cave and even without a genie, I found a few bottles to try each weekend during lockdown. Below are four of my rare gems but you can find more of my lockdown beers in my blog on my website http://cryneinyourbeer.sitelio.me.
Thwaites – Old Dan Ale (7.4% ABV)
The BBE on this nip (third of a pint bottle) was 2013 so the bottle must be at least eight years old. This beer was part of Thwaites’ initiative to add a number of new interesting beers to their bottled beer range. Thwaites dates from 1807 but they are no longer at their original Blackburn site, having relocated to the Ribble Valley in 2018 so as to concentrate on supplying beer to their own pubs.
The label declared the ingredients as Maris Otter, Pearl and Crystal malts with Fuggle and WGV hops and using Thwaites top fermenting yeast. It was ruby brown in colour, with aromas of sweet toffee, a slight trace of cardboard and sultanas. The smooth mouthfeel had flavours of sweet chocolate, plums and bitterness, which continued into the spicy dry but sweet finish.
Greene King – Very Special IPA (7.5% ABV)
This beer had the poshest label of the selection, with the gold and green giving it a classy appearance.
This Suffolk brewer, most widely known for its ubiquitous 3.6% ABV IPA, is also over 200 years old (dating from 1779) but was sold to Hong Kong’s CKA Group last year. This beer however dates from the days of being British owned, around ten years old.
Looking at the beer rating websites, the reviews of this beer around 2011 were ‘okay’ (the beer did have a BBE of 2011) but I think that, as Aladdin sings in the Walt Disney cartoon, ‘Let’s not be too hasty’; the beer had benefited from maturation, just like the IPAs of old. The extra nine years produced a golden brown, rich, full bodied smooth beer with a pleasant honey sweetness. The palate had slight orange fruity notes, nuts and sultanas fading into a bitterish dry finish and an increasing spicy flavour that lingered long. The aroma was dominated by sweet caramel with a hint of sultanas. There was just a hint of cardboard due to aging.
Everard’s – The Master’s Tun (7.1% ABV)
This was the oldest of the beers covered, a mere 16 years! The chairman of Leicestershire’s Everard’s Brewery, Richard Everard, became Master of the Worshipful Company of Brewers in 2004 and this beer was brewed in commemoration at their Castle Acres Brewery. They moved there in 1985, selling the site in 2017 to move to a new green field site called Everards Meadows which they have developed into an all-round leisure complex. The new brewery on the site will open next year. In the meantime, their beers are being brewed by their staff at Robinson’s and Joule’s breweries.
The Master’s Tun came in a lovely custom made wooden box. The beer is ruby brown, full of caramelised citrus and sultanas. There is some sweetness, with dark chocolatey roast notes, balanced by a growing and lingering rich spicy bitterness and a pleasant dryness. There are faint spicy notes with sultanas, marmalade and roast on the nose. The overall impression was of a full flavoured, smooth and well balanced beer.
Kannen & Kruiken (6.2% ABV)
The final beer was brewed in March 2009 at Brouwerij de Molen in the Netherlands and bottled the following month. It was produced to commemorate the signing of the constitution of the European Beer Consumers’ Union’s (EBCU), of which CAMRA was a founding member. The name de Molen, meaning ‘the mill’, reflects the fact that the brewery was set up in 2004 in a windmill. The beer production now mostly takes place in a nearby building, added in 2012, although some batches are still done in the old building.
Now, about the name. I contacted Jos Brouwer, who was on the EBCU committee at the time. Jos is a member of both CAMRA and OBP, another founding EBCU member organisation and he explained that it was a Dutch phrase ‘alles is in kannen en kruiken’, literally ‘everything is in jugs and jars’. It means ‘everything has been settled now’, which of course fits perfectly for the signing of the constitution.
We tasted Bottle Number 3 and it was a delight; it had aged well and a good example of taking the risk and ignoring the given year shelf life, which was five years. It was a beautiful amber brown colour with honey and caramelised orange nose and flavour. There was a spicy hop fading gently in the lingering bitter sweet finish: rich and full flavoured.
If you’d like to find out more about ‘off’ flavours and how beer ages, we are still hoping to run a training session on 3 October, if the pubs are open by then! Go to here to book your place.
Editor’s note: it occurs to me that Christine will not have been the only one to have been exploring the backs of their cupboards. Please do let us know if you found anything interesting.
For those of you interested in food pairing
The Greene King Very Special IPA was teamed with a Comte AOP, aged 12 months. The strong creaminess is contrasted by the malty fruitiness and the nuttiness in both is complementary. The cheese holds its own in flavour strength. For a complete contrast a creamy Roquefort is a good option. The beer’s sweetness copes with the slightly acidic blue character.
Everard’s The Master’s Tun was paired with carrot cake. Sultanas and spice in the cake pick up some flavour in the beer. The cake’s dryness contrasts with its sweet icing and the beers richness and bitter roast. This provides a complex combination.