Don’t Drink That Beer!

December 29, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Tom Keith

Now that the holidays are over, your very best friends certainly gifted you with some pretty damn good beers. (No? Then dump them and get better friends.) But if you received beers like some that I got — with 7% ABV or more  — my best advice is … don’t drink them. At least not now. Maybe next year. Maybe next decade. But not now.

Oh, sure, they’ll taste fine now. But in a few years they’ll be much more likely to taste fantasmagorical. Time has a wonderful way to mellow and blend flavors, take the edge off the hops and let malty flavors shine through.

Many beer brands – mostly the macrobrews – advertise their beer as being “fresh.” And for those tasteless fizzy beverages, that may be a good thing. (Bud Light, for one, is great for making a tempura batter – since it’s virtually flavorless, it doesn’t get in the way of the flavors of whatever you’re frying. The only thing it’s not good for is drinking.)

But if you received a serious a beery gift (or a personal beery indulgence) for the holidays, think about how it will benefit from aging. You’ll remember those friends who gave it to you years from now. If you’re generous, you might even invite them over to taste some of it. I’m not that generous.

In a year or five from now, it will be something memorable you can pop open on New Year’s Eve, rather than that lousy Charmat Bulk Process “Champagne” they’ll be serving at the big, expensive New Year’s Eve banquet you were talked into attending. Something rich, deep and complex. A real beer.

A classic example of a holiday-season beer that ages well is Samichlaus. Originally brewed in Zurich, Switzerland, at one time Samichlaus was the strongest beer on the planet, coming in at 14% ABV. (Since then, a number of breweries have entered an unfortunate competition to see who can brew the strongest beer. I’ll be avoiding these abominations, topped out by Scotland’s Brewdog. Their Sink the Bismark beer comes in at a whopping 41% ABV – that’s over 80 proof beer, folks … it’s a stunt; not really beer as any reasonable person would define it.)

Samichlaus is now brewed at Schloss Eggenberg in Vorchdorf, Austria, and it’s true to the original, in flavor and tradition. It’s brewed only once a year, on December 6, and aged for 10 months before bottling. Rich and complex, it should be treated more like a fine port than a beer. I’m still patiently waiting to open my bottle of Samichlaus ’87. Maybe I’ll crack open a bottle when it reaches 25 years old.


left, the original Samiclaus from Switzerland (this one the 1987 vintage), right, the Austrian version, vintage 2009

But there’s no need to go to Europe for age-worthy beers.

Chicago’s own Goose Island, in particular, has developed a number of age-worthy beers, most notably the Bourbon County Stout series.  With Regular, Vanilla, Coffee and Rare versions, they’re world renowned — dark, rich, roasty complex, even creamy, with notes of bourbon and chocolate —they’ll just get better as the years pass (the labels suggest they can be cellared for five years; I might go longer). All earn a coveted 100 out of 100 rating from Ratebeer. 13 % ABV. The 22 oz. bombers go for from about $15 to over $50 each, depending on variety. (If you can find them, that is.  Let’s just say the Rare is aptly named). If you enjoy fine beers, they’re worth it.

Photo courtesy Goose Island
Photo courtesy Goose Island

For something easier to find and a bit more down-to-earth, consider, Goose Island’s Belgian 3-pack. At less than $25, the well-regarded combo of Sofie, Matilda and Pere Jacques come in at 6.5%, 7% and 8% ABV respectively, and will easily develop more of the complex fruitiness character they all share over the next four or five years.


Over in Kalamazoo Michigan, Bell’s just released its limited-edition Batch 10,000 — the last of their limited-edition Batch series. Despite being just a bit under $20 per six-pack, it’s a great investment – but again, tough to find. You’ll be well rewarded when you open it on the day you retire.

Like cleaning out a refrigerator full of leftovers, Bell’s brewmasters used up all the dribs and drabs of malts, other grains, and hops (100 different malts, grains and other fermentable stuff; 60 different hops — that’s extreme to the extreme), to produce a dark, rich brew with chocolate, coffee and pine notes (the latter, from the mostly-American hops). But beware — it goes down much more easily than you’d expect from a 9.2% ABV beer. (I’m speaking from experience here — you’ll note the two bottles in the back of the six pack have already been drained, and they went down much more quickly than they should have. I’m blaming the beer, not me.) Reviews from others have claimed the parts, while complex, don’t all come together harmoniously — another reason to give it a few years.


Meanwhile, in Warrenville, Illinois the Brothers Ebel (aka Two Brothers) also produce the occasional cellar-worthy brew. Recently, their Imperial IPA (at 8.1% ABV) has already gotten acclaim from those foolish enough to drink it fresh. Word is that the technique of wet-hopping (i.e. adding fresh, not dried hops) gives the beer enough hop oomph to stand up to the strong maltiness, for a balanced behemoth. And finishing in new French Oak tanks adds welcome woodiness.

Best for aging for a few years? The $50 3L bottle — get chummy with your local retailers and see if one of them can get it for you.

Three Floyds Dark Lord (a Russian Imperial Stout) is also a no-brainer for cellaring several years. But if you don’t have a bottle already in your cellar, you’ll have to fight the Munster, Indiana crowds in the spring on the one day it’s released.

Back in Chicago, Half Acre has made a number of limited edition brews that deserve some age, including the Double Daisy Cutter Imperial Pale Ale, Baumé American Chocolate Rye Stout, Ginger Twin India Red Ale, Big Hugs Imperial Stout, Magnus Schwartzbier, The Invasion Helles Bock, Shewolf India Pale Ale (discussed here), and Freedom of ’78 Guava Wheat India Pale Ale (guava in a beer? Yes!), among others. Snatch ‘em up if you can find ‘em — they’re rare.

There are many other examples — the beers from New Holland come to mind — but the point is … there are great local beers you should go out and buy … but don’t drink them for New Year’s Eve … unless it’s New Year’s Eve 2015.



  1. Mike says:

    Are there any requirements for storage? Cool, dry place?

    • Tom Keith says:

      Storage conditions should be similar to wine – ideally cool, dark, with consistent temperatures. Dry doesn’t matter for capped beers, but a little humidity helps if the beer is corked. I cellar my beers in the basement, near the wall – temperature changes very little, it’s cooler than the rest of the house, and light are off most of the time. But the most important requirement? Patience.

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