It was an event that was more than six years in the making. The plan was to find a weekend for my wife and I to get together with another craft beer loving couple (Shout out to John & Steph!), finally crack open the Pumking bottles that I have been aging behind my bar for the past 5 years, and partake in what is called a “vertical tasting.”
Well friends, that day finally arrived this past Saturday. It was the perfect day because Pitt football had an away game, there were a TON of great college football games during the afternoon and a fantastic boxing pay-per-view that evening. A combination of three of the things I enjoy the most; football, boxing and craft beer. (My twitter handle is @BoxingandBeer after all…)
Some of you may be thinking, “You drank a beer that was 5 years old?? GROSS!” But, certain beers are designed to accommodate a little aging, if done correctly. While there are no “hard and fast” rules for aging beer, there are a few rules of thumb that apply in most cases.
First, light and heat are two of the biggest enemies for any beer, so the ideal conditions for aging beer is a cool (55 to 65 degrees), dark place with no major temperature swings. Next, high alcohol beers typically age better. Generally speaking, most beers with an alcohol content below 6 or 7 percent are intended to be consumed as soon as they leave the brewery. So, anything 7 percent or higher would be a good candidate for aging.
Also, certain styles of beer age better than others. Most “hop forward” beers such as IPA’s, pale ales, etc, do not age well as the hop flavor fades with time. Some good styles for aging include Belgian Dubbel, Tripel or Strong Darks, Barleywines, Imperial Ales, and Imperial Stouts. Lastly, beers, unlike wines, should be stored upright while aging.
Now, for those of you not familiar with the term, a vertical tasting is when you taste one single beer with samples from different years. The objective is to find out the evolution of the beer over the various years and to see what effect aging has had on the beer. So, in our case, we had one bottle of Pumking from every year starting with 2010 and ending with 2015. Check out the line up!
If you’ve never tried it, Pumking is an imperial pumpkin ale brewed by Southern Tier Brewing Company in Lakewood, NY. It was first brewed in 2007 and is one of the most popular pumpkin beers available. Since I first tried it in 2008, Pumking has consistently been one of my favorite beers. However, I feel that while it is still a great beer, it’s not as stellar as it used to be…which is why I was so excited to pop open some of these older vintages and see how it has changed over the years. Let’s get started!
2010: 9.0% ABV (alcohol by volume)
Heaven, I’m in heaven….. WOW!!!!!!!!!! Now, this is why i fell in love with the King. Deep copper color, subtle pumpkin but more of a nutty aroma. Soooooooooooooooooo smooth. We could not detect any vanilla or pumpkin spice notes either in the aroma or on the tongue. We definitely could taste pumpkin (which is not the case with some “pumpkin” beers) but again a rich nuttiness dominated the flavor. Picked up more alcohol on the tongue as it warmed. FANTASTIC BEER!
2011: 8.6% ABV
Similar copper color but not as deep. Picking up some vanilla on the nose. More subtle pumpkin flavor than 2010 but it is still noticeable. Also a slight nuttiness but not much there. Flavor seems to be all up front and then disappears. Tastes thinner than 2010. Improves as it gets warmer.
2012: 8.6% ABV
Still pours copperish (is that a word?) but seems to be a little lighter still than 2011. Vanilla/graham cracker aroma. Very watery mouth feel. Not much of any flavor here at first but both taste and aroma improve with warming. Still not much going on with this beer. I seem to remember this being an off year due to problems with that year’s pumpkin crop.
2013: 8.6% ABV
Back on track here…. Still copper in color but not as cloudy as previous years. Pumpkin and vanilla on the nose and tongue both. A little more pronounced flavor here. Not as thin as the last two years. Familiar trend of improving as it warms. This year has a fuller flavor that hits the back of the tongue. Second favorite year so far.
2014: 8.6% ABV
You may notice two changes here. First, the graphics on the bottle have changed, and second, look at the difference in color! We have gone from a deep copper to a tangerine/orange peel. And that’s not the only thing that is different. This is the first year that has a pumpkin spice aroma. Also the first year with a bitter finish. We could not taste any pumpkin. Breaks the trend of getting better as it warms. Not very good. Least favorite so far.
2015: 8.6% ABV
Another change! This is the first year Pumking is available in 12oz bottles! Still lighter color than the older vintages but a little darker shade than 2014. Cinnamon/pumpkin spice/vanilla aroma. Cinnamon and spice on the tongue but could not taste much pumpkin. Still has a bitter finish but less so than 2014. Does not improve as it warms.
2010 stole the show by far. Everyone agreed that it was easily the best of the bunch and it may have been the best beer I’ve drank in a while. After that, two of our group (myself included) had 2013 in second and 2011 in third, while the other two people had those two years the other way around. We all agreed on the places of the remaining years which were 2012, 2015, then 2014 bringing up the rear.
Now of course, aging alone does not cause ALL of the differences seen in a beer from one year to another. Brewing beer is a delicate process and it is very hard to replicate the same beer from one year to the next. That being said, it was so interesting to see the changes that aging had on Pumking over a 5-year period. The difference in color was astounding and we went from the velvety smoothness of 2010 to the bitter finish of 2014-15.
I would recommend for anyone that is into craft beer to try a vertical tasting. In addition to being a great excuse to down multiple beers in one sitting (Lay off me, I’m doing a vertical!), it gives you an appreciation for the chemistry going on in every bottle of beer you drink. As a beer ages, sweetness increases, bitterness decreases, earthy/woody character increases, fruity/floral esters decrease. As you can see, it’s quite a complex dance, which means the beer you drink today could, and probably will, taste totally different after it has aged.
So, do you have a favorite beer that would be a good candidate for aging? If so, grab a bottle and store it upright in a cool, dark area. In 5, 10 or 15 years, you may thank me!