Saturday, October 27, 2012

To let it be or not to let it be... that is the question?

The question of age and conditioning in beer is as important and potentially contentious as it is in wine (and people). The very act and method of brewing is a study in time and patience. It is a commonly held belief that the IPA is the beer of youth. A young IPA holds more of its hoppy and bitter edge, and this will mellow out over long periods of aging. So as the theory goes, taste early and taste often! I must admit to having been ignorant of this at the outset, and the first two IPAs I made suffered the whole 3-4 week bottle conditioning process without a sampling. However, do not misunderstand me here, they were fine beers, and have done naught but spur me on in my forthcoming brewing endeavors. But can I go forward living with the doubt? What of their status at week 1 or week 2? As I learn more about this style (and rationalize my process) I see that there's little to be lost in having the complete experience of each beer one makes. I'm currently only brewing 5 gallon batches, and whilst that doesn't leave huge tracts of room for waste, one or two bottles in the early weeks of conditioning probably wouldn't impact things too much. After all this remains an exploratory phase.

We all have our own barrel warehouse right? 

Which brings me to a current conundrum, which I am going to say is providing an exciting learning curve! As summer has faded and the foreboding clouds and ominous nights are drawing in, one seeks greater comfort than can be found in the arms of a crisp lager or summery hefeweizen. I seek now instead the velvety security blanket of the stout to ward off winter's chill. In a seemingly prescient move, I actually made my stout in the depths of August's summer reign; reasoning that I'd miss it were it not to be ready until the following spring (I made it a cherry stout to afford a fond reminiscence of Summer's glory). And in truth I've been as patient and faithful as I could have hoped. It was bottled and primed two months to the day after it had been tucked in for fermentation, and now I sit here musing after 20 days conditioning.

I'll level with you here and now; I have tasted it and not just at hydrometer readings. I had a glass that somehow(!) got left over from bottling, and after about 18 days in conditioning I cracked one open to try it. Perhaps somewhat predictably it has proved delectable. The sourness of the cherries (more about them another time) really offsets the sweetness and cuts the heaviness. But now I research the style more and more and am left with one stark realization: conventional wisdom dictates that stouts (and particularly Imperial Stouts - this bad boy clocks in at a burly 9.6% ABV) are aged for near implausible* lengths of time. I feel I should probably go anywhere up to and beyond a year for a truly well aged stout, which gives me pause. I want to live this stout now and enjoy it over the winter months, but in such small batch size this would surely belie its true character. Approaching 3 months aged it would seem silly to go on a spree of consumption and polish it all off before the year is out, but it is so good! The better parts of myself will have to be disciplined and maybe I should trick myself into stowing 2-4 bottles somewhere that I cannot get at to afford the true stout experience. Where an IPA can pass you by fleetingly if you linger overlong, hubris can have you chasing things in a stout that are yet to be. A study in wistfulness if ever there was one. Is patience the ultimate virtue?

*At least for this eager new brewer