The Science and Merits of Aging Beer: A Dark Lord Vertical
It is wine, not beer, that garners the attention and prestige of oldness. Wine cellars are the apex of a wine lover’s hobby, containing one’s personal expression and history. Opening a bottle of wine purchased years ago is one of life’s great pleasures and a vessel for memory unlike most other things.
But beer is not generally associated with these qualities. Indeed, most beers are not meant to age at all, being brewed to taste best with maximum freshness, when the acids and oils in the hops are at their most expressive. With aging, oxygen molecules start pulling electrons from other molecules, such as copper, that have been left over from the brewing process, which leads to sherry-like flavours. Additionally, as beer ages it gains in (E)-2-nonenal and honeylike phenyl-acetaldehyde, which produces cardboard flavours and “Ribes” or a cat-pee type aroma. To counteract these negative tendencies, beers built to age generally must have more intense flavours and higher alcohol, which serve to mask the flaws after years in the bottle.
Thus it is that the best aging beers tend to be malty beers that are high in alcohol, such as barley wines and stouts. The bitter flavour components in beer decrease over time and the sweet, caramel components increase, which means that a hoppy imperial stout might become a mellowed-out dessert beer with a few years of age.
I started getting seriously into craft beer just before living in California back in 2009. When there I collected a ton of beers and brought them back to Canada when I returned home where I promptly put them in a cellar for aging. As my preferences changed over time and shifted almost dominantly to a focus on wine, my beer cellar was left to its own devices for a few years.
Recently I felt the time was right to explore some of these special brews, with a focus on one of the rarest beers in the US: Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout.
Drinking a Legend: At The Altar of Dark Lord
Dark Lord is so legendary in part because one can only purchase it on one day a year called Dark Lord day. It is quite difficult to even get tickets to that event, which sell out immediately upon release. The event has gained in fame to the point where people arrive hours early to wait in line and open/share rare beers with other attendees.
Dark Lord is the epitome of American extreme beer making. It is brewed at 15%ABV and is incredibly rich and over the top with flavour. It regularly rates amongst the best beers in the world on ratebeer and beer advocate and bottles can sell for as much as several hundred dollars each. Given all this, it is quite hard to get one’s hands on a bottle, let alone one that has been aged for a while.
Thus I felt lucky to be opening a four vintage vertical collected from various sources (including a bottle of 2011 as a gift from a friend). The years? 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
The Dark Lord experience was quite different from what I expected, particularly with the oldest beer. The 2007 Dark Lord poured motor-oil thick but tasted nothing like imperial stouts as we know them. Instead, it was a massive bomb of umami, with soy and seaweed like flavours. It almost tasted like there was MSG in the beer. No carbonation was left and it was not really possible to drink more than a few ounces of this beer. But it was probably the most complex beer I’ve ever had and I was astonished what Dark Lord was possible of becoming after 7 years of aging. Excellent+.
The 2008 Dark Lord was similarly umami driven, but not as balanced or complete as the 2007. It felt in a somewhat awkward phase, though it certainly was an interesting beer. It had more chocolate notes to it, but still did not resemble an imperial stout as we know them fresh. Excellent.
It wasn’t until the 2009 Dark Lord that we started to recognized the classic hallmarks of beer, such as carbonation and roasted malt flavours. The 2009 was a potent, chocolate, coffee, smoke and rum laced beer with a lot going on but more accessible than the older Dark Lords. The 4-5 years of age seems a perfect mid-point between the intensity of youth and the strangeness of old age that many beer drinkers would likely enjoy. Very Good+.
The 2011 Dark Lord was still displaying the intensity and expression of youth with quite a perceptible alcohol and a lot more vanilla and coffee layered onto a huge malt backbone. The beer was also far far sweeter than the 2007-2009 bottles, making it the best to pair with chocolate and more of a dessert beer than an intellectual sipper such as the 2007. It seems to me that Three Floyds has changed the recipe over time as the massive increase in sweetness in the 2011 as compared to the older three beers cannot be explained entirely by youth given that the aging process will bring out the sweetness in most beers. Thus I wonder if the 2011 marks a stylistic shift that will continue into the future. Very Good+.
None of these beers displayed any of the flaws common with old beers: cardboard notes, Ribes, oxidation or overt sherry flavours. The chemistry of the aging process as a positive thing is only starting to be understood as most of the research has been on avoiding the negative flavours beer develop with time. The craft beer industry has really only exploded since about 2005 in the United States and so there are still many questions to be answered. These Dark Lords demonstrate that the right kind of beer has incredible potential for developing complexity with age and is ultimately open to a fully transformative process wherein most drinkers would not recognize the final output as any form of beer they’ve ever encountered.
Other Fun Tipples
Dark Lord was the centrepiece of the tasting, but not the only beer on display. We also drank a couple 2009 Dogfish Head Burton Baton Imperial IPA’s aged in Bourbon barrels, a 2009 Alesmith Wee Heavy Scotch Ale, and a 2008 Deschutes Hop in the Dark Cascadian Dark Ale.
The best beer of these three was surprisingly the Dogfish Head, which paired beautifully with honey glazed chicken wings. The bourbon barrel notes had melded perfectly with the caramelization of the hop flavours while the body of the beer was smooth and silky, even with the 10% ABV. Excellent.
The Deschutes held up well, but tasted more like a very well balanced CDA, surprisingly youthful. Very Good.
The Alesmith, one of California’s most storied brewers, had developed an odd sour character to it that was probably a flaw but didn’t seem to interfere with many drinker’s enjoyment of the beer, which also had very tasty caramel flavours that paired great with a maple glazed pork tenderloin. Good.
Building a Beer Cellar
With the craft beer market exploding here in Vancouver finally, I highly recommend that wine drinkers put a little investment into a few of the best high alcohol, ageable beers and pop them in their cellar (upright) to see what happens in a few years.
Below I list some of the best beers to look out for that do get into this market:
- Brooklyn Black Ops Imperial Stout
- Deschutes The Abyss Imperial Stout
- Nogne O #100 Barley Wine
- Nogne O Imperial Stout
- Nogne O Imperial Porter
- Hornbeer Imperial Stouts and Porters
- Mikkeller Imperial Stouts such as Beer Geek Breakfast or Beer Geek Brunch
- Dogfish Head Burton Baton Imperial IPA
- The Bruery “Wood” (anniversary beer – 15% ABV)
- Ninkasi Imperiale Stout
- Southern Tier Blackwater Series Stouts (e.g. Mocha, Java, Creme Brulee)
- Rochefort 8 or 10
- Driftwood Old Cellar Dweller