Yeasties and Oddities
Part III of IV in a series on the age of beer. [ Part 1 2 3 4 ]
Beyond the basics of malt and hops, artisanal brewers take advantage of countless other sources of flavor and aroma when they formulate their beers. Besides water, we are still missing one crucial beer ingredient: yeast. During fermentation, yeast not only turns maltose (sugar) into alcohol, it can provide a full range of flavors. While American strains are usually more neutral, English yeast strains provide fruity esters, German hefeweizen yeast can add banana and clove flavors, and Belgian strains can offer phenolic notes, and wild yeasts can add anything between lemons and horse blankets.
Pic somewhat unrelated. Just avoid this; it is not a real lambic.
The variety of yeasts is vast, but what does this mean in terms of keeping our beer fresh? The yeast profile of a beer should be regarded similarly to malt flavors of a beer. The overall complexity of a beer can generally be correlated successfully to the shelf life of a beer (with notable exceptions—never forget the hops). Flavors and aromas created by the yeast will fade over time, but the more there is the longer it will take to fade away. Yeast strains that add intense flavors to beers, such as Belgian ale yeast strains, add to the shelf life of beer. Neutral yeast strains, such as American ale yeast, add very little, and so the beer is only as vulnerable to degradation as the sum of its other ingredients.
One oddity when it comes to the age of beer is sour beer, or wild ales and lambics. In these beers, a spectrum of wild yeasts and bacterias help to ferment them, resulting in pungent flavors, mostly sour and funk. Many regard these sour beers as the best beers to age, even though they may have little alcohol and very few hops. While your experiences may vary, these can normally easily be stored for at least a couple of years without any negative impact on the beer.
The importance of freshness in lighter and hoppy styles of beers is well known, but there is one category that is horribly overlooked: coffee beers. Anyone who drinks coffee can tell you that coffee beans are best when fresh, usually within a few days after being roasted. When coffee is made it quickly goes stale if not drank immediately. Why do people assume that the coffee in their beer is going to last forever?
While coffee beer obviously lasts longer than a pot of coffee, the flavor and aroma does fade rapidly. Since coffee is most often paired with a porter or stout, people are used to being able to save these beers for a rainy day. For instance, let’s take a look at Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout. At 13% ABV many people just assume this beer is a candidate for aging. The regular Bourbon County Brand Stout with a couple of years of cellar age is magnificent. The coffee version used wonderful Black Cat Espresso from Intelligentsia, one of the finest espressos available. But every week this beer sits in the bottle the espresso fades away.
Having been released over six months ago, what was once an amazing intense espresso character has faded to only a hint of its former self. The end product now only tastes slightly different than the original beer instead of the high octane espresso explosion it once was.
To put it bluntly, this beer was amazing, but now the espresso is ruined. Congratulations if you are cellaring this beer. You have wasted what was a masterpiece of espresso and barrel aged imperial stout. Drink promptly before any more injustice is done. It is awful to think that a huge amount of these beers were not drank fresh.
Respect coffee. Refrigerate coffee beers and drink them promptly. If you will excuse me, I have a growler of AleSmith Speedway Stout fresh from the brewery to attend to.