Nothing sounds more vomitous than letting a can of beer crust over for a couple years, cracking it open, and slurping up some piss-warm brew. Mmmm, six-year-old Coors Light. What’s up, basement-aged Bud? Wines improve with age; beer should be fresh. Only this separates your can of primo Schlitz from froggy formaldehyde.
It is believed, however, that a small percentage of beers better with age. “The whole point is that the flavors blend,” says Alan Jestice, the general manager at Blind Tiger Ale House, who’s been holding on to some beers since 2000. “Some have an intense malt sweetness or hop bitterness that needs to be rounded out. If you mesh the two, you find the balance . . . so they’re not kicking your ass when they come right out of the bottle.”
To an outside observer, the qualifications for cellar-worthiness appear complicated and convoluted, and remain a discomforting source of debate among brewers and experts. Michael Jackson, the unfortunately named aficionado who scarily refers to himself as “The Beer Hunter,” believes only two types are suitable: cask-conditioned beers (available only in a few microbreweries and pubs here in New York); and non-draft, bottle-conditioned beers, which also have living yeast in them to continue the maturation process. Sometimes judiciously stamped “vintage” on the label, the latter contain a layer of yeast sediment at the bottom. Jestice also ages some kegs, although he mentions that high-alcohol content is key: “I wouldn’t go below 7.5 percent.”
But how does the untrained palate know what bears astonishingly complex flavors and exquisite port-like subtleties versus what merely teems with the finer nuances of . . . ass? It’s not unlike stepping through a taste-test minefield: “If the ‘re-fermentation’ process does not proceed properly,” warns Jackson, “the beer may be excessively malty and syrupy or soupy. Dead yeast can give ‘meaty’ flavors.” Sounds delish. If it’s not sealed correctly, you could also wind up with soured brew.
We suggest starting out safely, with a tasting at a well-known beer bar like Blind Tiger Ale House. They’ll be hosting one on March 23, with 11 vintages on draft, one cask, and a selection of bottles. There are a few other pubs in the city that also periodically offer it, among them, d.b.a. and Waterfront Ale House. Don’t be wary—these guys can ably separate the choice from the crap.