While most brewers strive for batch-to-batch consistency amongst their beer, the infrequent brewing of seasonal selections means that a particular beer may change from year to year. Long a tradition in wine and spirits - the vertical tasting has been added to the list of habits taken up by many a beer geek.
When participating in a wine vertical, tasters hope to find out how different inputs - growing conditions (weather and insects, for example), barrel vintage, in addition to time in bottle - may have had an effect on the way a wine tastes. The vertical allows the taster to better train his or her palate to the subtle differences in vintage.
Because brewers may approach seasonal releases in a different way than everyday releases - tweaking or completely changing recipes, or using new and better equipment as their brewery grows - the beer vertical may only function to help drinkers learn about what characteristics of beer they like better.
Another benefit of the beer vertical is from a flavor standpoint. A fresh version of a higher alcohol by volume beer may come out "hot" - with a stronger alcohol flavor, and less integration of flavor components. By sampling beer throughout an aging range, drinkers can find the beers "sweet spot" - the time at which a beer tastes its absolute best.
Of course, the first step in throwing your own vertical tasting is building a library of beer to pull from. The preferred method for storage of your beer calls for a dry, dark space within cellar temperatures (54-57F). Cellar temperature is generally the ideal temperature to slow the aging of your beer, while still allowing for the changes in flavor that you're looking for.
If a cellar temperature space isn't available, a dark closet (or even a cabinet) isn't the worst backup plan - it's the method currently employed by more than on member of the HBG KOTBR. We store all our bottles upright; there's (a dying) argument for lying down corked and caged bottles, but from a space standpoint, upright is easiest, and keeps cap or cork contamination to a minimum.
Once you've acquired the beer, you'll want to make sure it's labeled - while many beers now include information on when they've been bottled, that's not always the case. If you're the disorganized type, you might want to apply some sort of label to each bottle.
Of course you'll need to start with a "control" bottle. For maximum effect, take extensive notes on the beer: appearance, nose, flavor, and body. You can either stash those notes with the remaining bottles, or save them in a safe place on your computer. When you revisit the beer down the line, you'll now have the complete details about the way it tasted way back when.
Although rare beer verticals may be attention grabbing, commonly available beer varieties may be just as rewarding. Higher ABV beers such as Barleywines and Imperial Stouts are the usual choices, but hoppy beers can also be an interesting choice. Breweries such as Russian River insist that you drink hoppy beers fresh, as the fresh hop taste is the objective of their beer. But in aging bigger IPAs interesting things can happen, as hops mellow and malt brings balance to the beer.
"I stay away from cellaring hoppy beers, except Barleywine, which can be hoppy," said Cavalier Distributing's Mat Gerdenich. "Having said that, Shoreline barrel-ages an IPA and that is very tasty - the Sum Cens Double IPA that is on the shelves at better beer stores in 750ml bottles."
Bell's Expedition Stout was the first beer I ever put into my cellar. It is a good price per ounce when you look at the price of other imperial stouts and I think this is one of the finest beers available when it has some age on it. The hot alcohol is very prevalent with a fresh bottle, and I just simple do not care for it. Once you put a year of age on it, though, the hot alcohol almost disappears and what is left is a silky smooth and robust imperial stout that is hard to beat.
For a beer that's just fun to see what happens over the years, I like Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. A six pack is always very reasonable at around 12 bucks and you can experiment with one each year. The beer is fantastic fresh but I also like it when it has some age on it. Fresh, it is an enamel-peeling malty Double IPA of the highest order, but after some age those hops falls back a bit, the malt profile comes forward, and it becomes a classic American Barleywine.
Founders Imperial Stout is another beer I enjoy both fresh and aged. Fresh, it has a more forward coffee and chocolate flavor. With a bit of age on it, the malt flavor takes on more molasses and dark fruit flavors. I can't say I prefer this beer either way, but it only comes out once a year, and I like to have a bottle every few months.
Another beer I regularly cellar is Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. This beer is just all bourbon and alcohol fresh - it's the most bourbon-forward barrel-aged beer I've encountered. After about a year of age, the malt comes forward and the hot alcohol starts to fade into the background a bit. After two years of age, it begins to morph into a big balanced malt and bourbon beast of a beer. Every year it just keeps getting a little better and better.
Matt's been cellaring better beer nearly as long as I've been drinking it, and my beer closet has been filled with a slightly different philosophy.
Of course it all started with Three Floyds Dark Lord. Before I'd ever put much thought into comparing Dark Lord year-to-year, I just sort of ended up having some left over from a previous year. The allotment for the beer was 6 bottles per person once upon a time, and even at 4 per, that meant that between Gina and I there were always at least 8 bottles brought home per year. As a result we've now got five or so vintages in the closet. Sure, Dark Lord isn't the easiest beer to get, but it's not the hardest, either (at least for those of us in Indiana). It's also a beer that definitely has perfect characteristics for a beer worthy of aging.
The next collection of beers we stumbled upon aging is a collection of higher ABV bottles from Founders. Amongst those in the closet from Founders are Backwoods Bastard, Imperial Stout, Breakfast Stout, and Kentucky Breakfast Stout. We're not religious about chasing down these beers, but when we stumble across them, we've got a collection of older bottles with which we can make a comparison. Even if you usually tear your way through that Founders four-pack, it might be worth your while to throw one in the closet for later comparison.
A recent addition to the closet was Anchor's Christmas Ale. This 2011 edition is Anchor's 37th edition of the beer, which can be found in most better liquor stores between November and January. Anchor Christmas is a beer whose recipe changes, making it an interesting choice for year-to-year comparison.
Cavalier Distributing's Mat Gerdenich offered a few readily available selections from his inventory that he finds ideal for cellaring: Stone Vertical Epic 11-11-11 (the final selection in an ongoing Stone cellaring project), Stone Double Bastard ("We (opened) an 03 for a party and it was OUTSTANDING," notes Mat), Great Divide Hibernation and Yeti, Eel River Triple Exultation (which won GABF Bronze for aged beer), Eel River Imperial Stout, Mendocino Imperial Barleywine, North Coast Old Stock, and the 2008 Thomas Hardy 8.5 liter bottles (a readily available selection that is perhaps the best example of what age can do to a beer.
The beer cellar is an experiment, where you're the beer scientist. Between different recipes and different ages, cellared beer can offer a myriad of flavors, both rewarding and disappointing. Although there's certainly some component of the fun of tradition in building your cellar, your guiding philosophy should be your taste.