The next time you taste a beer that’s cloyingly sweet, motor-oil thick and and has as much alcohol burn as a shot of vodka, here’s what you should do: Go out and buy another one.
At least, that’s what Patrick Dawson says you should do. He should know—as the author of “Vintage Beer: A Taster’s Guide to Brews That Improve,” Dawson quite literally wrote the book on beer cellaring. (He’s also written about drinking really old beer for us before.) And he suggests that, rather than the relatively clean and well-constructed brews that commonly make it inside beer geek closets, the ones we should be aging actually taste pretty awful when released.
“I’ve talked to a couple guys who have been able to drink Thomas Hardy’s fresh—apparently you used to be able to get it near the brewery before they even aged it—and they’re like, ‘That stuff tasted like rocket fuel.’ You couldn’t even choke it down,” Dawson says. “But, oh, that’s one of the best aging beers of all time.”
Dawson proposes that the best beers for your cellar are extremely thick in body, taste overly sweet and lean heavy in alcohol when fresh. To understand why, you first need to recognize what’s going on inside a bottle of beer as it ages. First, malt sweetness fades over time. This is because beer isn’t a liquid, but a bunch of stuff suspended in a liquid (otherwise known as a colloid) and the complex sugars floating around inside a fresh beer tend to drop out of that suspension when it’s aged. This tends to make the beer taste less sweet, and has the added effect of thinning out the body.
“For me, a big red flag if I’m going to age a strong beer is if it’s kind of thin already,” Dawson says. “I want almost a syrupy sweet, cough syrup thickness, because after it ages for five years, that body is maybe going to be cut in half, or at least drastically reduced, and I want there to be something left over at the end.”
Another of Dawson’s requirements: “heat,” or alcohol burn. If the beer isn’t hot enough, meaning it doesn’t have a large amount of tongue-numbing fusel alcohols, it won’t develop nearly as much complexity as it ages.
“Maybe I have a high-alcohol beer, like 10% ABV, but if it drinks really smooth, that’s actually a deterrent for me because fusel alcohols are building blocks for a lot of these different flavor compounds that appear, specifically dried fruit flavors. For those to come about, there need to be fusel alcohols,” he says.
So a dream barleywine, stout or Belgian ale bound for the cellar, Dawson says, is “basically screaming hot—like, it just tastes like rubbing alcohol—and is syrupy sweet.”
“Over time, that’s going to develop so much more complexity and have enough body that by the time I drink it, it doesn’t feel like a Diet Coke,” he says.
You heard the man. Get out there and buy some shitty beer.