Sam Adams has recently made headlines in the beer-drinking world with their much-publicized Millennium Vintage Ale and the lesser-known Triple Bock and Utopias beers. While any beer aficionado worth their weight in hops knows about the existence of, and has been drinking several varieties of vintage ales and the like throughout the years, this push by Sam Adams to expose the wider beer drinking community to more complex, unique, and rare beers can be nothing but good for the entire beer industry, from your garage-brew all the way up to the big bottling plants. Not to mention the opportunities this presents for the burgeoning connoisseur.
What Is A Vintage Beer?
The definition of ‘vintage’ and its use in both wine and beer making is disputed at best. Some will claim that ‘vintage’ refers to a specific harvest of grapes in a specific year or region; while this does not translate directly to brewing, regional differences in hop varieties do play a large roll in the final flavor and aroma of beer. You can read more about this here. Others will say that ‘vintage’ years are just particularly good, and are named as such after the fact. For our purposes though, and for the purposes of shopping for and tasting vintage beers, let’s say that a vintage beer is any beer that is aged, either in the bottle or the barrel, for an extensive period of time after the initial brewing and fermenting process (the aforementioned Millennium Vintage Ale from Sam Adams was aged for 6 years).
Many, but not all, vintage beers are Belgian or brewed in the Belgian tradition or ‘style.’ Most of the drinkers and enthusiasts of vintage beers however are not; at least according to this article. Also, while these ‘vintage’ beers are fun, we’re talking about current, aged beers, not American beers from the 70’s. If you still have any of these lying around, we urge you not to drink them.
What Is A Belgian Style Beer?
For an extensive explanation, as always, ‘you know who’ has the answers, but let’s gloss the subject quickly anyway. For starters, there are two large subcategories of Belgian beer: Trappist beers and Abbey Beers. Trappist beers must be brewed in a Trappist monastery and every step of the process must be supervised by Trappist Monks.
Other than these restrictions, Trappist beers do not have a lot in common with each other, especially regarding flavor, which can be greatly varied. Abbey beers are commercially brewed and loosely associated with a monastery by name only. From here, the subcategories and styles expand greatly and are beyond the scope of this entry, but we can take a look at the more common styles.
Dubbel: Rich brown color, developed in the 19th century, between 6% and 8% alcohol.
Tripel: Any variety of extra strong ale from Trappist or Abbey breweries, 8% alcohol and up.
Lambic: Dry, fruity, cidery wheat beers, brewed with wild yeasts and aged a few months to a few years, various alcohol content depending on age.
White: Light, crisp, sweet, brewed with wheat, barley and a mix of hops and herbs, 5% to 6% alcohol.
While these styles can help you choose beers based on your preferences, there is still a wide range of variation within each category. As some have proven, you could easily drink a different Belgian or vintage beer for each day of the year. In general, this writer has found that Belgian beers, as opposed to traditional Irish, English, and American beers, tend to be more fruity, full-nosed, and intensely flavored in general, while still maintaining a very crisp, light finish. This is in contrast with something like an Irish Stout that is most likely nutty, creamy, and rich with a soft finish, or an English Brown Ale that is most likely round, hearty, and slightly sweet. These two varieties would also have a less pronounced nose and a less complex flavor than your typical Belgian style beer. Keep in mind, “less complex” does not mean “not as good.” We’re simply talking about the qualities of the beer in purely descriptive sense. Beer tasting, like wine tasting, or even food for that matter is incredibly subjective.
So, take a Belgian style beer that lends itself to aging, perhaps with some active yeast in the bottles themselves, cellar them for a few years or more, and you have a vintage beer. Some breweries, as mentioned above, do age beers in barrels, or with the addition of wood chips (which, by the loose definition of “contact with wood” during aging, is still considered barrel aged), such as Stone Brewing Co.’s Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale (and, even though it’s not a vintage beer, I have to mention this beer; it is probably the best Belgian style IPA that has passed my lips in a long time).
To embark on your vintage beer journey, we suggest you find the liquor store near you with the best beer selection and just start trying (this little gem is actually exclusively available at a small grocery store chain you may have heard of, and can’t be found in any liquor stores). You’ll learn soon enough what you do and don’t like.
Yes, vintage beers can be pricey, but often times you’ll find the money is well worth the rewards to your taste buds. You’ll also find that locally owned, independent liquor stores will have more knowledgeable staff than most chains, and will therefore be excellent sources of information and tasting advice. Once you start buying the good stuff, you’ll find that you get the treatment: recognition upon entering the store, sometimes by name, information on upcoming beers, and maybe a few deals, etc. And, if you run out of beers at your local store, there are indeed entire festivals for vintage beers and barrel aged vintage beers specifically.
So go forth, and satisfy your taste buds and your curiosity. And, as always, everything in moderation; just because a beer costs $20 a bottle, doesn’t mean it won’t get you hammed, in fact, vintage beers, as a result of the aging process, usually have a higher alcohol content than your average brew. Our advice: get your regular six-pack to relax, and pick out one special beer each time you go to the store. You’ll find that you can better appreciate one complex beer better than five, and you’ll prolong the adventure without destroying your bank account.