Many beers, like some wines, improve with age by developing complex flavors and increased mellowness. Generally beers which age well have several common traits, which are high alcohol levels (usually 7 percent or higher), deep malt, and often elevated bitterness. Alcohol and hops serve as preservatives.
Aged beers are meant to be sipped and savored, often in a brandy snifter. They develop with cellaring as the alcohol blends into the malt over time while the bitter hop edges round out and blend in. Through oxidation, fruit (usually dark fruit), spice, Port and Sherry-like flavors often develop. For some styles, such as IPAs, the aging will change the basic characteristic of the beer as the hops flavors will be lost.
Beer styles which frequently mature well, but not every time, are especially Old Ales and Barleywines, but include to a lesser degree Imperial Stouts, Scottish ales, some Doppelbocks, Flemish Brown ales and Belgian Trippels. Our experience has shown that many of these start to show improvement in as little as one year. Most start to decline after 5 to 7 years, although this is not universally the case and a few do quite well after ten years.
Subtle flavor differences become more apparent during a vertical tasting when the same beer from different years is compared, one after the other. If you have not laid down some beers for several years, a few stores and restaurants stock different vintages of several beers.
A beer which does particularly well with aging is Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Bigfoot Barleywine which has a 9.6 percent alcohol by volume and a profusion of citrus flavored hops reaching 90 International Bittering Units. Below are the results of a vertical taste of four vintages from a tasting of 14 years of Bigfoot in a marvelous evening of reveling.
Bigfoot 2012 was ten months old when enjoyed. It has an aroma of bitter hops, light sweet caramel malt and a touch of celery. The medium bitter hop front moves into a moderate caramel malt middle with hints of orange and grapefruit. The hops increase in the finish, overwhelming the malt. The bitter citrus and orange linger through the aftertaste with a slight resin presence. The alcohol is evident but remarkably well integrated. Ratings: 7.5/7.5.
Bigfoot 2010 has a bouquet of muted bitter hops, modest caramel and pinches of citrus and celery. This version is much mellower than the 2012 version. The tempered caramel malt and restrained bitter hop front transitions into a trace of apricot and a tangible caramel malt middle while the hops continue. In the finish the hops increase to medium joined by a resin nuance as the other flavors remain. The hops come to the forefront in the aftertaste as all the other flavors fade. The alcohol is not noticeable. Ratings: 8/8.
Bigfoot 2008 is the 25th anniversary version of Bigfoot. Its nose has a temperate caramel malt, whiffs of bitter hops and citrus and a soupcon of apricot. The front has a tantalizing caramel and gentle apricot which continues into the middle. The finish adds a trace of raisin, some peach, and mostly integrated but perceptible hop. In the aftertaste the caramel malt and hops ebb but linger, with an added mild resin. Ratings: 8.5/8.5
Bigfoot 2004 has a bouquet displaying pronounced raisin and a breath of chocolate. The modest raisin front with some caramel malt continues into a delicious raisin, light alcohol and mild milk chocolate middle. The finish adds a drying alcohol with a genial bitter hop. The aftertaste shows subdued alcohol, bitter hops and vanilla as the raisin decreases. Ratings: 8/8
Bigfoot 1998 has a noticeable prune and very slight alcohol aroma. The prune juice front grows in the middle with some milk chocolate added. These continue in the finish, further adding a tinge of alcohol. The aftertaste is very dry and smooth with a noticeable prune flavor. Surprisingly smooth and quite drinkable for a 14 year old beer. Ratings: 7/6.5.