How Does Beer Change?
What is the effect of time and good cellaring on a beer? There are two ways to find out. One is to lay down a number of bottles of a promising beer: sample one each year, keep comprehensive notes, and hope you have a good, consistent palate.
The other way is to collect several years’ examples of one beer and taste them side-by-side, recognizing the variations between vintages, but concentrating on the effects of age. In March, a trio of North Carolina beer lovers assembled just such a vertical tasting of the Millenium beer from Virginia’s Dominion Brewery. Here are their observations:
1996–Huge, dried fruit aromas, smooth malty/sherry flavor, big body and dry, sherry finish. Excellent. Perhaps the best vintage in this tasting. Lots of malt to balance the high alcohol level. This was a very hoppy beer when fresh (about 100 IBUs) and it has mellowed very well.
1997–Raisiny malt, plummy fruit, sherry-like oxidation, low hop aroma, with a long, dry finish. As the’96, this beer aged very well. A quality vintage.
1998–Pleasantly oxidized. Smoother malt character, and low hop aroma and flavor. Finish is less dry. Malty and fruity, though not as much dried fruit character as the ‘97. Another very good vintage.
1999 (February bottling)– Malt character not as pleasing as previous years. Still very malty though with a somewhat sharper edge to it. Much more hop bitterness and aroma, much less sherry/fruit oxidation, hoppy finish. Worth seeking out.
1999 (December bottling–the beer was brewed early in order to be available just before the year 2000. There was no 2000 bottling)–Noticeable hop aroma and flavor, very smooth malt character. Light and pleasant sherry and fruit oxidation. This beer, at just over 2 years of age, has a nice balance of hops, malt, and relatively light oxidation. Again, another very good beer.
2001–Much higher carbonation level. Seems to be lighter bodied, with less malt and hop character than previous years. Hop bitterness still relatively high; more malt balance would make this a better beer. Not as assertive as previous vintages.
2002–Fruity. Malt and hops seem reduced compared to earlier versions. Alcohol is very perceptible. Relatively thinner body than older versions of this beer, and low hop aroma and bitterness in comparison to previous vintages. Not as bold and assertively hoppy as in previous years. The alcohol level seems to be relatively close to earlier versions, but more balance is needed to make this a great beer, as most of the earlier vintages are.
Note: All of these vintages of Dominion Millennium have a stated strength of between 10.5 and 11.5% alcohol by volume and hop bitterness at about 90 to 100 IBUs. Liberty, Mount Hood, and Perle Hops are used in the boil, and Kent-Goldings hops from England are used to dry hop the beer. Dark Virginia honey is also used. Each vintage carries the day, month and year of bottling.
The rarer 1994 and 1995 beers (the first two years of Millennium) are also prime candidates for cellaring. While neither of these was available for this tasting, I have sampled both within the past year and the beers were excellent, with a very sherried taste and slight to moderate oxidation.
Tasting notes by Chuck Cook, Tom Fitzpatrick and John Isenhour, March 30, 2002. Commentary by Chuck Cook.