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Beer: Practicing 'controlled deterioration'

Greg Engert wants you to try aged beer. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)

“You wouldn’t want to drink wine fresh — ever! It’s too harsh,” says Greg Engert, beer director for Birch & Barley and ChurchKey in Logan Circle, with a laugh. “But beer is a beautiful thing when it’s fresh, and a beautiful thing when it’s aged.”

Not every beer. Pilsners and lighter styles should be consumed as fresh as possible. But stronger beers (barleywines and imperial styles) and bottle-conditioned beers (those primed with live yeast) can acquire tremendous complexity over time. Hot, solvent-like flavors fade; the beer acquires of patina of nutty, toasty and sherry-like notes from a slow oxidation (what Engert calls a “controlled deterioration”).

For those with neither the cellar space nor willpower to tuck beer away, Engert later this week will unveil Birch & Barley’s new “reserve list” of about 55 beers that are either pre-aged or that have the potential for aging.

Some, such as the 2004, 2005 and 2006 Aventinus, he acquired in vintage form. “There’s been a complete change,” he says of this strong, unfiltered wheat beer from the Schneider brewery in Kehlheim, Germany. The banana/clove flavors typical of this style “completely fade,” he says, replaced by softer nuances of cocoa and hazelnut. The beer’s importer, B. United International in Redding, Conn., offers a “vintage collection” of beers dating back to 1993.

He’s bought other beers, such as Schaerbeekse Kriek from Drie Fonteinen near Brussels. with the intention of letting them develop. The brewery specializes in lambics (beers spontaneously fermented by airborne microorganisms). The kriek is made using a scarce variety of cherry rich in both sugars and acids. Engert believes the beer will age gracefully for at least four or years, with the cherry nose subsiding and the sharp acidity yielding to to an earthy, farmhouse funk.

The price — $75 for a 750-milliliter bottle — should keep this beer moving slowly enough for the full effects of aging to manifest themselves.

Churchkey isn’t the only bar with an onsite beer cellar of vintage brews.

Three years ago Newsweek ran an article on “vintage suds”, citing Gramercy Tavern in New York City, whose beer list (at the time) included a $23, 11-ounce bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale from 1992.

You’ll pay $26.95 for a six-ounce bottle of 1987 Thomas Hardy’s on the Brickskeller’s current menu. Owner Dave Alexander traces his stock of this classic English old ale to a 1987 tasting hosted by the late British beer writer Michael Jackson. “That’s when I started buying beer not to sell it!” he chuckles.

(The beer — first brewed by Eldridge Pope in Dorchester and later by O’Hanlon Brewing Co. in Whimple until the brand’s discontinuation after the 2008 batch — can be sweet, almost syrupy, when young, but becomes increasingly nuanced with age. Check out Baltimore beer blogger Alexander D. Mitchell IV’s “sipping notes” on a 1999 vintage.)

Despite the lure of greater profits, the onus for aging beer will continue to rest on the retailer or a middleman like B. United. “Brewing equipment takes up a lot more space than winery equipment,” notes Engert. Small operations in particular can’t afford to sit on their profits.

There are occasional exceptions. If you drop by the Sweetwater Tavern in Merrifield this week, you might get to sample a two-year-old, barrel-aged version of the brewpub’s High Desert Imperial Stout. Wetten Importers in Sterling has brought in 750 cases of special version of Samichlaus Helles (a 14 percent alcohol-by-volume double bock) that was lagered 18 months instead of the usual 10 before packaging.

That experiment won’t likely be repeated, says importer Martin Wetten. “Tank time is too expensive.”

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  March 1, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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