I recently turned 35, and unlike all previous ages, I certainly feel older every day. My back is more sore, my feet have a mild case of plantar fasciitis, my hair is turning gray, and I get heartburn if there’s too much lime in a dish. And, to be fair, I am not being kind to myself. I drink too much, smoke too much, and worry too much. I don’t sleep enough, exercise enough, or healthy-eat enough. Like most things, the body needs to be cared for if you want it to last. Beer that you expect to keep, for cellaring or sentimental reasons, is no exception.
Aging beer is a sensitive subject for most brewers. For the most part, we want you to drink the beer immediately. We want you to drink it the day we filter it if you can. We understand that there is not a fountain to drink straight out of at the brewery and there is not a hose leading to the parking lot so you can fill your own growler. You have to wait til we put it in kegs, cans, and bottles. And after that’s done, we think you should drink it as quickly as possible, unless we build a beer that we think will age well. Higher alcohol, lower pH, lots of spices, hops, or adjuncts, and excessive aging before packaging are all things that can allow a beer to age well. Beers with low alcohol, quickly packaged, and with sensitive additives do not age well.
Likewise, the only reason my body isn’t completely falling apart is because I was healthy and active in my teens, twenties, and early thirties.
I’ve kept a lot of beers for cellaring and sentimental reasons. Shortly after my 35th birthday, I dipped deep into my cellar for the sentimental beer I put away from the first year I worked at Ska Brewing. I tasted Hi-Hop Ska Rye IPA, the 19th anniversary beer from my first year at Ska, Cru D’etat, a Belgian strong dark ale aged in an oak foudre for two years, also released in my first year at Ska, and Dementia, a blended bourbon barrel-aged Euphoria pale ale that I helped put in barrels while I was in the cellar and released the next year.
Considering that Ska just celebrated their 23rd anniversary, the 19th Anniversary Hi-Hop Rye is four years old. If it were a human, it would be in preschool, wide-eyed and bushy tailed, in awe of the world. Since it is a beer, it was on its last leg. The best by date on this beer was smudged out, but I’m assuming it expired sometime in early 2015, making it at least 160 in beer years.
Even with all this stacked against it, it still wasn’t a terrible drinking experience. The hops, though long disappeared from the flavor profile, preserved the beer’s core rye malty goodness. I still got spiced plums and floral notes on the aroma (good rye characteristics). Sure, it had some dusty, extra-soft edges, but it was a well-made base beer that hung out well. If this had been an imperial rye IPA, it would have been amazing. This beer tastes how I feel when I do competitive athletic activities: I’m OK, I’ll live, but goddammit I need to get my fat ass in the gym and do some cardio.
The Dementia did not hold up well, on the other hand. There were obvious signs of brettanomyces (wild yeast, also called “brett” for short), oxidation, and a general mustiness that was not agreeable. The way the beer was made, a blend of new and old beer, dry hopped before and after barrel-aging, and the fact that the beer is now 4+ years old really contributes to its downfall. I tried it two years ago when I first moved to Louisiana and the brett character was just peaking through the faded hop notes. It was this beautiful caramel, fruity, slightly funky taste with a hint of wood and oxidation that was really cool and interesting. I should have drunk all of my bottles of Dementia right then. Now I have two bottles left that I’m terrified to open. This beer tastes the way I feel when I’m hungover and eating leftover hot dogs after a summer barbecue that turned into an all night drinkfest. I hate myself and my wasted youth.
The Cru D’etat was built to last, and last it did. This beer is aged for two years in oak foudres (basically a really big oak barrel), 11.5 percent abv, and is aged with wild microbes that lower the pH of this beer, giving it a very pleasant tartness as well as providing a natural preservative. Even though this beer is 50 percent older than the other two beers, thanks to the time in oak foudres, it is 100 percent better. The beer has a great candy aroma with cherry cordial, chambord, and a really sweet bourbon. The flavor was all Belgian candy, dark caramel, and really pleasant tartness riding the sweet notes. I remember drinking this beer fresh and thinking it was crazy tart and pretty out of balance. Now it is *chef’s kiss* perfect.
This beer tastes the way I imagine myself in two years: finally finding enough work-life balance to establish a good workout routine and finding the nerve to cut my hair. Aging gracefully to a balanced sense of maturity.
Robbie Wendeborn is the head brewer at Svendæle Brewing in Millerton, New York. He is also a former beer plumber at Ska Brewing.