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Aging a barleywine

OK, so I have been brewing about 4 years now, and know about good fermentation and storage practices. One area where I don’t have a lot of experience is brewing big beers.

In 2008 I brewed a big barleywine (1.10+), and bottled it in early 2009. It tasted pretty bad in the fermenter and even worse a couple of months after bottling. I had used some homegrown hops which gave the batch an unpleasant bitterness, and I used a dry yeast (either Nottingham or Windsor) which was very aggressive and caused a very fast and hot fermentation.

This beer was unpleasant - murky, solventy tasting, and gave me an instant headache. The only reason I haven’t dumped it out is sheer laziness.

Today, just for giggles, I threw one in the fridge for a few hours and popped it open. Gone is the murkiness, gone is the harsh hop flavor, gone is the overpowering solvent flavor. In it’s place is some residual bitterness and some sweet caramelly goodness.

How can a batch of beer go from being utterly offensive to nice and mellow? I always heard about that beer can improve with age, but I didn’t think the shift could be so dramatic.

Strange isn’t it.

I had a SNPA extract clone that had a terrible bite in the back of the throat when you drank it. It was actually in most of my extract beers. I put the last 6pk away and finally brought it back out close to a year later. No bite.

That’s pretty ironic. 2-1/2 years ago I made a partial mash Bière de Garde That came out way over gravity. I decided to use 2124 because wyeast says it can be used at ale temperatures.

Shortly after bottling it I shared a bottle with some friends. Between at least 4 of us, we couldn’t finish the bottle because it was such a nasty 9.5% fusel bomb.

A year or so later I tried it again. Definite improvement but still not good.

Tried it a couple of weeks ago and it is a downright pleasant winter warmer. Like you said about yours, a definite sweet finish but it makes you slow down and enjoy.

I have always wondered what actually happens to the beer in extended aging that makes it change so much, but have never seen a good answer.

I brew all of my 'big" beers with the full intent of not opening them for a year plus. I have 3 batches of bourbon barrel porter in my basement - just finishing the last 6 pack of the 3 year old batch, have drank some of the 2 year old batch, and recently had a couple bottles of the 1 year old batch. It definitely gets better with age - super smooth and mellow. I brew a new batch every january so that I don’t get antsy and open them too early.

Also have done an x-mas ale with apple pie spice, pumpkin pie spice, etc - kind of a heavy ale. Not at all good 10-12 months after I brewed it. Tasted like someone put a teaspoon of dry spices in your mouth. However - the next christmas, 2 years after brewing, it was great and I ended up drinking it all.

Had a maple ale I brewed with real maple syrup - tasted like I was eating pancakes for the first year. dumped some of it, but forgot about a case I had buried. 3 years after brewing it, I found the case when moving and figured I would try one. Took me about a week to figure out what beer it was - but it ended up great with just the subtle hint of maple.

Big beers that taste bad the first year are worth hanging onto for 2-3 years - you never know. More often than not, they turn out pretty good as long as the bad taste is not due to infection or something like that. I have a pumpkin ale in my basement that I brewed last summer - it was not real good this fall, so I am holding out hope for next fall:)

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