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Beers, Like Wine, Can Improve With Age

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Welcome to Craft Course, our new column on the art of craft beer. Every week Christian DeBenedetti will take a look at interesting beer styles, brewmasters and their breweries, and more from high to low, East to West, and around the world.

[Photo: ttam elbanak / Flickr]

Last week undersea archaeologists in the Baltic Sea retrieved some precious bottled cargo that set tongues wagging around the world—but it wasn't rare Burgundy or a once-in-a-lifetime score like Shackleton's Whisky. It was 200-year old beer, and much to the surprise of anyone who's inadvertently tried a year-old bottle of say, Heineken, the beer, found some 50 meters below the surface amid an array of extraordinarily rare champagne bottles, was still quite drinkable.

Wait—still? "We believe these are by far the world's oldest bottles of beer," said Rainer Juslin, a spokesman for the local government of the Åland Islands, in a statement issued to reporters. "The constant temperature and light levels have provided optimal conditions for storage, and the pressure in the bottles has prevented any seawater from seeping in through the corks," the statement read. Juslin later told CNN the boozy cargo had been aboard a ship believed to be heading from Copenhagen, Denmark, to St Petersburg, Russia, and likely met its fate between 1800 and 1830. Experts speculate the haul might have been a gift of France's King Louis XVI to the Russian Imperial Court of Catherine The Great. In other words, don't count on getting a taste of this stuff, ever. It's going in a museum (or perhaps down the gullets of some very lucky researchers. I hereby volunteer).

The find brings up a few good questions: so what exactly was this fancy flask, maybe even fit for a queen? And what kind of beer would still be even remotely drinkable two full centuries after it was brewed? Juslin told reporters one of the beers shattered due to pressure changes during salvage revealing a dark brew. Thus my guess would be that it was a bottle of Baltic Porter, the most popular export beer of the time, brewed in England. Even better, its stronger, darker offspring, Russian Imperial Stout, a beer first developed by Thrale's Brewery in England specifically as a gift for Catherine, who loved it so much she commanded breweries in St. Petersburg to get busy making it (and some still do).

Catherine The Great's Stout

Catherine's stout was deliberately brewed for sea voyages, with plenty of structure from its backbone of heavily roasted grains (which gives it both its high alcohol of around 10% and its dark color), and the brewers knew very well it would improve with time. Imperial Stout is a beer with the necessary chemistry to last and improve even when not stored 150' below the sea, which is why it's among the most sought after and collectible beer styles today, and is often labeled prominently by year. (Because brewing ingredients aren't as weather-dependent as wine—aside from the odd hops shortage due to wind and rain—there's no such thing as a "good year" in brewing, and I rue the day beer people start dropping years at the pub to sound important).

Russian Imperial Stout

When properly made, Russian Imperial Stout is big and brawny, with dark cocoa aromas and flavors, with lashings of madeira, raisin, and Christmas cake-like spice. American craft brewers have made some excellent facsimiles (Three Floyds Brewing Co. of Munster, Indiana especially, along with Colorado's Oskar Blues and Oregon's Deschutes). Guinness's Foreign Extra Stout is a good and widely available approximation. And, in your travels, should you find a tiny dusty bottle of vintage-dated Courage Russian Imperial Stout, beg, borrow, or steal it. Since 1982 it has only been sporadically brewed in secret locations around England, making it the Château Lafite Rothschild of beers—elusive, to say the least.

How Age Can Improve a Beer

Good beer is universally drinkable when it leaves a brewery, but age can improve the biggest brews with higher alcohol, roughly 2.5 times stronger than your average supermarket lagers (which don't improve with time. Hence their "drink by" dates. Chug away.) And Imperial Stout isn't the only type of beer that can improve with age. As this excellent 2008 New York Times story showed, there's an array of brews that lay down well, including English style Barley Wines, Belgian Lambics and other sours, barrel-aged and other strong beers, and the like. Alcohol by volume must be in the area of 10% to give the beer any chance of improvement, and the cork or cap must remain in good shape to avoid oxidation, which gives beer a papery, wet-cardboard taste. UV light must be avoided to spare a beer from the skunk effect, a more serious problem with green or clear bottles (as opposed to brown ones, which filter UV light and are preferable).

With the exception of sours, which have little hop character, the process of aging mellows bitterness and aroma while deepening and accentuating malt characteristics, drying out the last molecules of fermentable sugars and sometimes adding an acidic, vinous note that can complement the rich grainy bodies of such beers well (and pair well with desserts or certain rich poultry and beef dishes). The fact is, many age-able beers have already aged in the brewery—Sam Adams' Utopias, a rare and delicious port-like concoction, contains a blend of barrel-aged beers up to 16 years old—and they'll do just fine in your basement. Aging beers simply requires patience and the proper setting: a cool dark place.

If you don't have the patience or room to start your own beer cellar, you can now buy aged brews from the best beer shops and in certain beer-centric restaurants and beer bars. New York's Gramercy Tavern has been a true leader in this regard. Here's some examples of what you might find there and what they'll set you back.

Aged Beers at Gramercy Tavern

· Anchor Christmas Ale, 2000, California (12 oz) - $13.
· Hitachino Classic Ale, Matured in Oak Barrels, 2002, Japan (11.2 oz) - $17.
· Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, 2006, Delaware (12 oz) - $19.
· Thomas Hardy's Ale, 1993, England (6.33 oz) - $20
· Cantillon Gueuze Lou Pepe, Kriek, 2005, Belgium (750 ml) - $47.

Oregon native Christian DeBenedetti (@debenedetti) is currently hard at work writing a book about American craft beer for National Geographic, due out in the Fall of 2011, and writes about beer and travel for magazines including Food & Wine, Men's Journal, Departures, Outside, and others. He lives and drinks in his hometown, Portland.

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