First, it was the alcohol content.
Note the adjective in front of SAISON earlier? IMPERIAL. As in GLORIOUS CONQUERING OVERLORD OF Saisons.
No but seriously, these days brewers slap that appellate in front of their beer names for two reasons.
The first, and probably best and most honest reason is to indicate a stronger alcohol version of a traditionally lower alcohol style, or to translate it: Imperial equals “this is a really strong beer that will probably get you drunk quickly and if you get served it in a restaurant or bar they are going to bring it out in a tiny little tulip glass reserved for elves and fairies because of stupid laws that prevent bars from serving you certain quantities of alcohol all at once and so you are going to sit there with your little elf fairy tulip cup like a pretentious beer douche hipster while everyone else sips their big manly pints like real men.”
The other reason to slap the adjective IMPERIAL in front of SAISON means you are about to ruin your beer and do something stupid like add excessive quantities of cat-pissy hops to make some sort of California moron brewer’s wet dream hybrid of stupidly-hoppy-ruin-your-palette Saison.
If you’re a brewer, you should totally do the first thing and make stronger versions of classic styles, because strong beers are delightful (so long as, if you can predict the message of this little article, you are PATIENT.) Often times these stronger beers can be a complex, innovative, aesthetically unique take on a beer you have tasted so often that you almost take it for granted. So do that, please. And send me a bottle when you’re done.
If you’re a brewer, you should totally NOT do the second thing, because you are a moron and despite what trendy west-coast idiocy you may have subscribed too, not every beer you drink has to be wrecked by stupid Cascade hops.
My crusade against the IPA (world’s dumbest beer style) aside, in this case, it just meant that his beer, this Sacred and Most Glorious Imperial Saison had 11% ABV and so if I didn’t age it, I would probably end up sipping a harsh and chemically astringent brew, that probably would have had more in common with floor cleaner than tasty malt bev.
THUS, take note: One of the categories of ageable beers are strong beers – beers with high alcohol or strong malt complexities. While these most often mean barleywines, imperial stouts, and robust porters, it can extend to any beer that has an ABV over 8%.
By aging these strong beers, the warm booze-like esters of high-alcohol beers will mellow, any excessive bitterness will smooth out, and in general the beer will not only be more drinkable, but it will allow you to taste subtle complexities that might otherwise be hidden in the first months after brewing by those strong alcohol notes.
The OTHER reason to age that Imperial Saison was because it was a Saison – a funky, Belgian style with elements other than simply yeast, malt, and hops that added to the flavor.
Belgian exotics, including saisons, sour beers, lambics and gueuzes all use MAGICAL SUPER-ORGANISMS that add flavor and complexity, but more importantly, consume oxygen that might otherwise ruin a normal beer. These specialty styles can go from sharp and bitter after brewing, to spicy, yeasty, and with earthy complexities that you simply won’t taste unless you’re aging.
But now here’s the thing. It’s not enough just to stuff that beer in a cabinet and let it go. If you’re going to age, you may as well do it right. There is a lot of stuffy beer snobery that can come into play here in debates about what is the exact right temperature to cellar your beer without imparting other off-style flavors such as might occur during lagering. My advice is that the best results are likely to occur between 50 – 60 degrees F. That means stuffing it into the bottom of the pantry is a NON-OPTION. At room temperature, oxidization can occur more rapidly and so the less strong or complex beers are at risk for still becoming stale.
On the other side of this, with temperatures below 50 degrees, you risk strange off-style fruit esters. This may be an interesting way to add a unique note to your homebrew, but it probably won’t win you any beer competitions.
So, you either have un-heated basement or cellar in your house where the temperature remains relatively consistent, or you are running a temperature controller on your cellaring fridge you keep it in your garage (because most household refrigerators run much colder than 50F!)
The next thing you must make sure of, and maybe this goes without saying, but some of you out there need a little hand holding still, is DARKNESS. You gots to have the darkness, child.
Ultraviolet light DECAYS YOUR BEER. This is why you bottle your beer in dark brown bottles, child, and this is why beer that comes in clear or green bottles is skunky and SHOULD NOT BE CONSUMED BY MORTAL MAN UNLESS HE IS ON SPRING BREAK IN MEXICO WITH HAWT GIRLZ IN BIKINIS BECAUSE THEN IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BEER.
So, ideally, you have a cool cellar underneath your house where no sunlight gets in, or a fridge in your MAN CAVE that will keep the light out, or maybe you live in a place where room temperature is 50 to 60 F all year round, in which case, on top of the TV is not the right spot for cellaring your beer. Put it in the dark!
So is that it? Is that the MAGICAL SECRET TO WHAT BEERS TO STORE AND HOW? Well, I’ll leave you with some final notes.
First, be wary of aging beers with adjuncts. Fruit additives, vanilla, coffee, chocolate, herb-, flower-, or tea-infused beers probably won’t age well since those ingredients can break down more quickly than the standard beer ingredients.
Second, hops. There seems to be a bunch of hipster hop heads around there these days who for all their bluster about bitter beers being better, can’t tell you the difference between a noble hop and a cascade. But if there’s one thing you can skip if cellaring your beer, it’s the hoppy ones. Hops are also a likely candidate for quick decay, and so the hoppier the beer, the more quickly you should drink it (and you should be drinking it quickly anyhow so you can move on to something that actually tastes good.)
Finally, don’t be afraid to test. Store away a 12 pack and pull out a single bottle to start tasting it at six months. Try it again at nine months, and then again at a year. The stronger the beer, the longer it will safely last, and so barley wines are ideal candidates for this type of aging. But if at any point you simply like what you are sipping, bring it in the house put it in your regular fridge, and start sharing it with your friends–it’s ready to drink!
Which brings us to the last, biggest and most important element of this challenge. THE WAITING. Man it stinks to wait. If only there was some sort of magical beer time machine we could take to that point in the future where our beer is perfect and ready to drink. I will be the first to admit that I have consumed in less than three months, batches of strong beers that I really should have aged for at least a year.
So if you find yourself in that sort of position, don’t fret. It just means it’s time to brew some more. And this time, this time you may just find the patience to let the beer age. Trust me, it can be way sexier that way.
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