The photo editor at the Santa Barbara News-Press discovered that I’m a beer writer, and told me he thought he had something I might find interesting. But the open-ended way he struck up the conversation with me had me a little worried.
“Do you ever drink old beer?”
I had to get clarification. After all, I’ve definitely enjoyed digging into the depths of my fridge to find a bottle I’ve had waiting for a year or more. It’s fun to see how time and oxygen dull some flavors and bring out others. I often find the way oxidation works with caramel malts to be a pleasant experience that brings out some dark fruit notes that can fun.
“I’ve got a bottle of beer I made about 15 years ago that hasn’t been opened, and I wonder what you think about it.”
Oh — so that’s what he meant by old beer.
Honestly, I was terrified. I was terrified when he brought the bottle in a paper bag, but pretty impressed to see the old King of Beers bottle — something a vintage collector might enjoy. Mostly though, I was worried that the inside of the bottle would taste identical to the bag on the outside. I couldn’t imagine a 15-year old bottle of homebrew being anything other than a flat, oxidized mess.
But, for the sake of journalism, I cracked open the bottle and poured about half of it into a glass. I was thoroughly shocked to see a clear, deep amber beer with a lovely white head pour out. I expected it to be flat and perhaps hazy (not sure why — I think I was just expecting bad things). It still had carbonation, incredible.
The firs sniff gave me a hint that this was likely very different from the Amber Ale that it was originally brewed as. There was no hint of hops at all, but there was a blast of green apples, sour cherries and plums. It was fruity and not wholly unpleasant, although it was very unexpected.
The first sip was even more shocking. The green apples didn’t make it past the nose, but there was a good burn of alcohol in its place. I imagine years of storage in a hot garage couldn’t have helped this characteristic. There was also cardboard — a cardboard flavor that lingered even after I was done drinking it. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was the highly effervescent carbonation and all of the fruit flavors. It reminded me a little bit of a Fllemish red ale, but with too much alcohol burn and, of course, the cardboard.
There’s no rating a beer like this. In many ways, I don’t think it can be truly enjoyed. It’s gone beyond a beer and into a thought experiment. There are things I wish I had done differently. I wish I had opened it with someone who had a better palate, someone who could identify each of the complex flavors I was tasting. I wish I had opened it with one of the local barrel-aging experts who might be able to identify what bacteria or wild yeast strain transformed this beer from a straightforward amber homebrew into a truly fascinating beer. I do not wish that I hadn’t drank it.
After my initial reaction, I took another drink, thought about it some more, and tucked the rest away. Truly fascinating.