Today I’m checking out Vintage Beer by Patrick Dawson “A Taster’s Guide to Brews that Improve over Time.” I saw this book reviewed by another site and thought it must be a joke. An entire book about aging beer, really? Seems quite a bit of overkill. A few blog posts or a big pamphlet maybe but not an entire book.
I reached out to the publisher for a review copy and they were cool enough to hook me up with one. After casually perusing the pages I realized that my initial assumption may have been mistaken. It’s a very small book, only 149 pages including the index with many of those pages containing pictures. It’s also quite a small format page as well, see below with banana for scale. By now my thoughts have gone from “info on aging beer can’t fill a book”, to “Ok maybe this will be good”, to “it’s so tiny”, all of this before actually digging into the book. Now we get to forward and its glowing praise of Patrick Dawson by none other than Stone’s “Dr.” Bill Sysak. Thoughts are moving back towards very excited.
Once we get into the meat of the book it shows that the book is a wise investment. People reading this are still probably thinking that there is no need for an entire book on cellaring beer. They likely think, like I did, that they know what they need to know about aging beer. They are, as I was, right. Most of us know what we “need” to know about cellaring beer. Basically just putting high ABV beers or sours into cool and dark conditions where we’re less tempted by them. Vintage Beer doesn’t change or alter those notions at all. It only enhances and reinforces those notions with the reasons why we need high abv beers, sours, low temperatures, and little light.
The meat of Vintage Beer starts with a series of 14 rules about cellaring beer. Some are somewhat obvious like the previously mentioned high ABVs. Others are far from obvious, like #8 “Spicy yeast phenols (pepper, clove, and smoke) develop into vanilla, leather, and tobacco flavors when aged.” These rules aren’t just quick one liners, instead sound reasoning backs up each rule. Reasoning like how hotter cellar temperatures will speed up chemical reactions and create off flavors.
After these rules is an ingredient by ingredient breakdown of what types of malts, hops, and yeast make for great aging potential. As with the rules these items have solid science discussing what will change over how long and why. There’s too much going on in this chapter for me to pick out specific bits to talk about… plus I need to leave some reason for you to buy the book!
Next up is a quick rundown of styles to cellar. I feel these are pretty obvious and the reasoning provided was already covered in earlier chapters. Perhaps the nicest part here is the specific brewery/beer recommendations for each style.
Now we reach the part which excited me most in my initial flip through. There is always a question of “Is this beer good to age?” or “What is going to come out of this bottle in 10 years?” Chapter 4: Tasting Classic Cellar Beers answers these questions for 8 different beers that represent 8 different styles. Best yet the beers chosen to represent these styles are relatively easy to come by. Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze may not be at your corner gas station but it also doesn’t need a trip to a monastery in Belgium like Westy 12 would. Each beer starts with a brief bio, followed by tasting notes for a fresh example. Getting to the good stuff we reach the aged tasting notes. The notes cover vintages up to 15 years but it gets fuzzy on what vintages certain comments are about. The real highlight of this chapter is below:
Vintage Beer has graphs like this for each of the beers reviewed. Each graph charts the development of 4 or 5 aspects of each beer.
That chapter was the peak of the book and it begins to slide downhill a bit from here. A chapter on cellar conditions is full of obvious, at least what I think of as obvious, observations. After this is a drool-worthy list of the best cellar bars in America. I’m proud to say I’ve been to, and enjoyed the cellars of, two of these places. Those two places being The Brick Store Pub in Atlanta and Falling Rock Tap House in Denver.
And that wraps up the book. If you just want to throw some beers downstairs and see what happens then this book is overkill. If you want to know the whats, whys, hows, and how longs, then this book is crucial. I’m happy I’ve read it and will keep it on hand for future reference. $15 for this book feels a little steep but I think it’ll be worth it overtime. Spending $15 now beats putting a $20 beer in the basement for 5 years only to learn that was a mistake.
I had this post finished but not polished off when a few different conversations about cellaring beer emerged. Over the course of these conversations I realized that Vintage Beer is missing why someone should age beer. Early on in Vintage Beer the author recounts a story of an amazing experience with a vintage beer. He leaves the why there and never gets back around to why to do all this. Here are 3 good reasons to age beer plus 1 bad one:
- Verticals – The idea behind a vertical is to collect a series of vintages, usually 3+ years, of a single beer. This allows you to see what the beer tastes like fresh, after 1 year, after 2 years, after 3 years, and so on… I’ve only enjoyed a few vertical tastings so far but all have been interesting experiences.
- Experimentation – Experimentation may not be the best word, but that’s how I think of it. The experiment of seeing what’s going to happen to this beer in 1, 5, or 10 years.
- The Best of Times – This is the best reason to hold on to anything. Waiting for a great moment, or just a random Sunday, and sharing those aged beers with your buddies. This is what Budweiser & MillerCoors have always gotten right about beer. Beer is for the best of times with the best of friends. Those times get made even better with the best of beers (which is where Bud/MC fall short).
- Because You Can – Too many people get a rare or “rare” beer and decide to start a cellar with no plans beyond being “cool” for having a “cellar.” This often leads to the ugly side of cellaring….
Bonus – The Ugly
- Hoarders – I’ve met very few of these people but they’re all similar—massive cellars sprawling across shelves, boxes, and drawers all full of beers that blow your mind. Beers you’ve heard of, and thought you’d never see in your life. But the owner never wants to drink any because the beer is too special, or there are too many people, or it’s too good to be drank right now. This mind-set only leads to more hoarding. You gotta break down and realize it’s just beer. Invite a few friends over, ask them to bring snacks or card games, and fucking drink it already.
What are you thoughts on aging beer? Any tips for those new to cellaring or new tricks for the old dogs? Share ’em in the comments!
FULL DISCLOSURE: I reached out to the publisher who was kind enough to hook me up with a free copy. To our readers, and any companies interested in sending me stuff, giving me free stuff impacts the review in only 2 ways. That I WILL review it and that and I WILL write a blog post about it. Giving me free stuff does not guarantee you a favorable review or that I will tell everyone to go buy it.