It’s been a gentle start to the year – the obligatory January posts rounding up last year and looking forward to 2016. But now the kids are back at school, the gloves are off and it’s time for a rant. On the agenda: the topic of beer shelf life and whether the kak beer you bought is being tipped down your sink because the vendor didn’t store it correctly or because the brewer didn’t do a good job in the first place.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of buying a beer that turned out to be undrinkable muck, and you contacted the brewer with your concerns, you might have heard the excuses. “It was perfect when it left the brewery. People don’t respect the cold chain. Liquor store owners/bar owners don’t understand craft beer/bottle-conditioned beer. We tell them they have to keep it cold but they leave it out of the fridge and there’s not much we can do about it.” Most of these comments are true. Bottles are often left on shelves or in non-refrigerated storerooms while they wait for a spot in the fridge. And short of turning up every day and asking the vendors to put their beer back in the fridge, there’s not much a brewer can do about it. But do they really need to do anything about it? Is it really so bad to leave a case of unfiltered, unpasteurised beer at room temperature for a while? I teamed up with Doctrine Brewing in Pietermaritzburg to conduct a little experiment.
Dion from Doctrine is a friend of mine. A friend who is also a proponent of bottle-conditioning. And one who took me to task on my rant on the pitfalls of this process back in 2014. He was determined to prove that bottle-conditioning, when done well, is a fine way to carbonate a beer. I don’t disagree. In fact I was never against the process itself – most Belgian beers are beautifully bottle-conditioned, as are many ales from my native UK. My issue was with brewers who don’t understand or follow the process, who see it simply as a way to save some money on a bottle filler rather than what it is – a science-based art form.
So Dion shipped a six-pack of his Baltic porter, Twisted Talisman, to me and so the experiment began. It was great to use a beer from the other side of the country for this, for we could also test out the old “craft beer doesn’t travel well” chestnut as well. Dion’s bottles of porter travelled about 1600km from brewery to my house, and no, they did not travel on ice nor in a refrigerated truck.
The batch – a 7% ABV porter fermented with a lager yeast – was brewed on May 1st 2015 and bottled five weeks later on June 6th. It spent the first couple of months of its life in a cold room at 15-17 degrees C and arrived in Cape Town on August 1st. I divvied up the bottles – some in the fridge and others in the cupboard and waited another month before cracking open the first bottle.
The First Taste
It was 7th September when I first sipped the Twisted Talisman. It’s a very pretty beer, deep mahogany, solid ruby highlights and an off-white head. There was nothing untoward on the nose – hints of chocolate and a touch of coffee. No off aromas, but then I didn’t expect any as this beer had been in my fridge the whole time. Plus Dion is great brewer with an admirable fear of infection in his brewhouse. I started to wish we’d started this experiment in winter – from the first sip, I wanted to eat chocolate fondant by a roaring fire. The beer has a hit of booze and subtle coffee flavours, followed by a long, lingering bitterness It’s kind of like ending the evening with an Irish coffee, except better, because it’s beer. I’m not a fan of the old “it’s bottle-conditioned so you have to leave a couple of centimetres in the bottle” excuse, so I poured out the whole thing. “As long as you are not throwing the bottles around I’m confident that you can pour the last drop into your glass with only a hint of yeast coming right at the very end,” Dion had said, and he was correct. The last inch poured cloudy, leaving minimal yeast residue in the bottle. (I spent a while attempting to capture this in photographic form, with limited success – see above).
A month later, we opened bottle number two, which had been kept in a cupboard until the day before we opened it. My scribblings are fairly – what’s the opposite of noteworthy? Noteworthless?? They’re fairly noteworthless.There were again no off flavours, and it basically exhibited the same aroma and flavour characteristics of its predecessor.
Some extreme heat
Then we decided to take it up a notch. for November there would be two bottles – one stored in a cupboard, then moved to the fridge the day before drinking, the other given a real beating. It sat on my office windowsill for a week in full sun. The temperature reached the high 20s for a few days in a row and that particular window gets a lot of sun – just ask the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The beer was then moved to the fridge for a week and opened on November 2nd.
Now we started to notice some changes. The unabused bottle again gave a touch of dark chocolate and some coffee but also started to take on a more complex character – plums, molasses and a touch of dried fruit. The latter is often associated with an aged beer and can be a sign of oxidation, though it’s also an acceptable flavour for this style. The poor beast that spent a week on the windowsill did not fare so well. The sun had certainly sped up the ageing process, just as it does to human skin. Dried fruit aromas rose and along with them we spotted the wet cardboard character associated with older beers as well as a background meatiness. The beer also seemed thinner, less full-bodied and was certainly less enjoyable. But what it was not was sour. Nor chlorophenolic. Nor butyric, astringent or full of floating clumps of yeast. In short it had aged very quickly, but a beer that was clean to begin with does not suddenly develop nasty off flavours just because it is warmed up a little (OK, a lot).
Getting better with age
A month later, on December 8th, we opened the fifth bottle – brewed seven months earlier, transported 1600km and never introduced to the inside of a fridge until a day before it was to be drunk. A surprise was in store for us. The coffee-coloured head fell fairly quickly and the beer appeared to be slightly more highly carbonated than before. And the beer had changed. It was richer, tastier, way more complex and definitely full of festive flavours – plum pudding, toffee, chocolate and to back it up, that subtle taste of coffee. I was still enjoying a long taste of treacle toffee five minutes later, making this quite probably the most enjoyable bottle of them all. (Note: I took the sixth bottle to a tasting but alas didn’t actually get a sip). There was no oxidation to speak of and curiously (or not), the beer had not turned into a sour mess despite spending the majority of its life around the 20-degree mark.
Of course, some beer styles age better than others, and a Baltic porter at 7% is going to be a better candidate than a blonde ale. But this wasn’t really an experiment in ageing beer and the flavours this process develops – that was just an interesting by-product. It was an experiment looking at storage conditions and whether an unfiltered, bottle-conditioned beer needs to be stored at fridge temperatures at all times. It was an attempt to prove that a beer does not suddenly turn from being “perfectly fine at the brewery” to being a masterclass in off flavours just because the owner of a liquor store kept it on a shelf rather than in the fridge. And I’m happy with the results.
Don’t stand for off beer – take it up with the brewer and make sure you get a replacement. It’s the only way the industry is going to grow. And if you get the chance, taste Doctrine’s Baltic porter. It’s really very good.