2006 Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine – A Case Study in Aging Beer

Today, I’ll be reaching into the “vaults” for a beer from 2006, Dogfish Head’s classic barleywine that goes by the name of Olde School. But first, I want to ramble on for a bit about the idea of aging beer.

Aging beer is an inexact science; the results of each aging experience are often rather surprising, for better or worse. Usually worse. You see, the vast majority of all beer is brewed to be consumed ASAP. Consigning such beers to a lengthy rest will just result in beer that tastes like wet paper, cardboard, rust, or a buttery caramel mess. This is the fate of most beer.

However, some beers can benefit from time in the bottle. Notice I didn’t say “will” benefit, but “can” benefit. Aside from lambics and other wildly tart, funky beers, the aging of which deserves an entire discipline all its own, what you want from an aging candidate is a big, strong beer. Some styles that have reputations for aging well include barleywines, old ales, imperial stouts, Belgian quads, or more generalized “strong ales.” Now, not all beers within these styles will age gracefully, but start here and you’ve got a fighting chance. Over time, these beers may integrate their existing flavors better, and calm their fiery alcohol. Over even more time, they may develop flavors more reminiscent of vintage port, sherry, cognac, or Madeira.

In any event, what we typically look for are beers that are somewhat fiery and unruly in their youth. If all goes well in the bottle, these booze bombs may yield an astonishingly refined drinking experience. Oxygen is the main enemy here – while all beers will undergo oxidation, some level of which is actually desirable in aged strong beers, runaway oxidation is ruinous.

The best way to age beer is to put it in a temperature controlled fridge or cellar at around 55 degrees. If you don’t have a cellar, store your bottles upright in the coolest, darkest place you can manage, and hope for the best. Storing bottles in the food refrigerator for long periods of time can actually retard some aging processes.

Now, to drinking. Olde School Barleywine is a powerful beverage, and that’s an understatement. This bruiser tips the scales at 15% ABV, and while perfectly enjoyable young, can be somewhat boozy and figgy-sweet, like a rum-soaked Fig Newton (which, admittedly, doesn’t sound like a bad idea). Bottled on 10/16/06 – let’s do this.

I’m going to give it the full Riedel snifter treatment. It pours a very nice reddish-brown, far more colorful than I remember. I can’t get over this color, this is beautiful! Really looks like a Madeira. Very little foam, though some bubbles can be roused by swirling. I’m going to let this warm up a bit, as you don’t want to drink a strong beer too cold. Cold high-ABV beers close up and come off as way too alcoholic – I want this to open up some before I start evaluating the aroma and taste. Thankfully, living in South Florida, it doesn’t take very long at all for a beer to warm up.

After a few minutes, I believe it’s ready. Lo and behold, it smells like a rum-soaked Fig Newton, but in a much more profound way than one would expect from a young Olde School. There’s also cherry, wood, vanilla, almond, red grape, pipe tobacco, anise – the smells just keep coming!

Upon first tasting, it clearly does not taste as alcoholic as it once did. It remains a very powerful beer, however, and it is felt almost immediately, after just a few sips. It has a solid orange-vanilla-fig sweetness up front, somewhat like Cointreau or Grand Marnier, but does not finish too sweet at all, with tobacco and light licorice on the back end. Viscous mouthfeel with very fine bubbles. I nearly wish it finished a bit sweeter, it seems to finish most like a dry Madeira. It also seems to have retained some kind of bitterness that is balancing out the initial sweetness, though I seriously doubt it’s coming from hops. This bitterness is more like the kind you’d find in Italian apertifs.

Pairing? Probably a good cigar, if so inclined. Chocolate could be interesting. I just scarfed some chocolate espresso beans, and the results weren’t unpleasant. Fudge, creme brulee, I could see these pairings working. This might even have enough to stand up to a Stilton.

Well, it’s been fun. Alas, this was my last 2006 Olde School, my favorite year of all I’ve tried. I have found later vintages to be sweeter right off the bat, but they should age just as well. Want to try this experiment for yourself? Track down some Olde School, drink one now, and forget about the rest for a few years. You might be amazed at the result.

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