Q: What would the wine industry look like, if wine were a more perishable product?
Although primary fermentation of beer and wine takes a comparable amount of time to complete, secondary fermentation of wine usually takes much longer. Once wine has been bottled, it is usually given months or years to mature, due to chemical maturation, rather than any refermentation in the bottle. This allows wines to be cellared, collected and traded. The status accorded to some vintners (and price-tags of some rare/vintage bottles) would be unthinkable if wine had a shorter shelf-life.
Beer, in the other hand, is best consumed fresh >99% of the time. Some higher gravity beers that are bottled with yeast will continue to develop (“bottle conditioning”), achieving complex flavours that are difficult to achieve in a typical brewing cycle. Sometimes, the brewer retains the bottles until ready. Bottles of Duvel are matured in the brewery for over two months: kept at 24˚C for two weeks/carbonation, before being cold conditioned for six weeks. Other times, the consumer needs to decide. There can be no doubt that some strong Belgian ales and imperial stouts reach their peak several months after they have left the brewery.
However, as with wine, only a small minority of beers actually benefit from cellaring – and if so, then it is a case of months, rather than years. The drive to produce rarity and exclusivity has encouraged many beer-lovers to cellar already rare beers. The aim of this experiment was to take the classic Westvleteren 12 from St. Sixtus Abbey and compare a young bottle (2014) and an old bottle (2012) side by side.
Two bottles of Westvleteren 12 (10.2% ABV), one cellared for 28 months (“old”) and one cellared for four months (“young”) were compared side-by-side in order to evaluate the effect of cellaring on appearance, carbonation, aroma and flavour. (The beers were refrigerated at 6˚C for a further 3 months prior to the experiment).
This beer was selected because:
- Both bottles were purchased directly at the brewery (two years apart) and were cellared since purchase. No distributor was involved.
- Westveleteren 12, due to its unfortunate status, is often cellared for extended periods of time in the belief that it will improve.
- The beer itself is a rich, dark, complex, high-gravity style that is bottle conditioned – ideal for contrasting a young and old bottle
The beer was served cool (10˚C) and allowed to warm (to 15˚C), with notes being taken of both beers side-by-side.
|2014 – four month cellared bottle (“Young”)||2012 – 28 month cellared bottle (“Old”)|
|Appearance: Chestnut brown in colour, with a big fluffy, foamy head.||Appearance: Chestnut brown in colour, just a little darker than the younger bottle. Much less foam and poor head retention.|
|Aroma: Dates, prunes, black currants, with hints of coriander, dark molasses and dark bread.||Aroma: Dates, marmalade, prunes, stewed apple, definite sweet vanilla (absent in the young bottle). Of the two bottles, this wins on the aroma alone.|
|Taste: Big body, gloops onto tongue. Plums, caramel. Hints of nutmeg. Warming alcohol presence. As it warms, the malty flavours develop and become more pronounced. This is a tremendously complex beer, but wonderfully balanced.||Taste: Slightly lighter body, perhaps due to higher attenuation and/or less carbonation. Plums and sour cherries dominate. Less malty/bready. Hints of balsamic vinegar with a tart, acidic finish. As it warms, the aroma turns very sherry like, indicating the degree of oxidation. The acidic finish becomes more and more unpleasant.|
Although the aroma of the older bottle was promising at first, the harsh acidic tones and hints of balsamic vinegar in the flavour, particularly as the beer warmed, meant that this beer was past its prime. The strength and complexity of this beer demands that it be allowed to warm and while the young bottle developed as it warmed, the aged bottle became undrinkable.
Those fortunate enough to get their hands on a bottle of Westvleteren 12 are encouraged to enjoy it (share it!) within the few months after purchase. Cellaring this beer for years will risk spoiling the beer through oxidation.