A few weeks back, while researching a story about Massachusetts residents with large beer cellars, I realized what I should do more often with the full bottles in my own cellar: drink them.
Aging beer for extended periods has its benefits. High-alcohol brews lose their rough edges as flavors meld together. I’ve got four poorly arranged boxes in a cool, dark corner in my cellar, sheltering those special bottles until the time is right.
In talking to folks experienced with the art of aging, however, it became evident that, more often than not, the best time to drink a beer is right now. Big stouts and Belgian quads can and do improve with age but not all of them will. Many aged beers aren’t necessarily better after a year or two in the bottle, just different. Sit too long on that Westvleteren XII you’ve been saving and you run the risk of forgetting about it and aging it past the point of ideal consumption.
It was in this spirit that I decided to crack open a bottle of Firestone Walker Sucaba. Today, Firestone Walker is well-known for barrel-aged brews, but back in 2006 Sucaba represented one of the first efforts in barrel aging for the Pasa Robles, Calif., brewery. The beer was originally called Abacus (Sucaba is Abacus spelled backward) but the moniker had to be changed because there was already a wine by that name. Firestone’s first real dive into barrel-aging came on the 10th anniversary of the brewery’s opening.
“We had never released any high gravity or extreme beers,” said Firestone brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “We didn’t even have an IPA in our lineup at that time. Now, it’s one of the beers we have the most practice with.”
Brynildson was handed the reins to make whatever he wanted and the result — the first batch of what would become Sucaba — was a traditional English Barleywine.
“So many people were doing big, sticky, heavy beers and aging them,” said Brynildson. “Our tack was a leaner-bodied beer with less clutter. We wanted something that would really showcase the oak. That was really the theme of our barrel-aged program for many years: lean, almost more wine-like in body and texture to allow the oak to shine through.”
I pop the top on a bottle of Sucaba to reveal the words “we are living beer” on the underside of the cap. It pours a reddish-chestnut color with very little head retention. I get strong notes of vanilla and bourbon in the nose.
Dark chocolate, cherry, toasted coconut, and more vanilla form the bulk of the flavor profile. This beer, part of Firestone’s Proprietor’s Reserve series, weighs in at 13.5 percent alcohol by volume. That booze catches up to you quickly, though the liquid is so lush you can’t help but go back for more sips. Despite the ABV, this refrains from being too anything.
Firestone ages Sucaba for a year before putting it on shelves. So while my 2014 bottle could have benefited from sitting another year or two at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Brynildson assures me I didn’t mess up by diving in.
“We’ve really already kind of taken off all the sharp edges and allowed this thing to come to full maturity,” he said. “It’s ready to drink when we release it.”
Firestone continues to brew anniversary beers every year, and each batch incorporates Sucaba in some way. Having started from scratch eight years ago, the barrel program has advanced dramatically. Firestone houses anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 barrels at a time, pulling out 220 barrels for the release of a new blend. Young brewers coming to Pasa Robles are more excited about the barrels than anything else, Bryndilson said.
“I think it’s kept us grounded.” he said. “It’s kind of tied into our DNA now.”
Tap takeover in Newburyport
On Thursday, Aug. 21, the 12 collaboration brews released by Sierra Nevada for its recent Beer Camp Across America tour will be on tap at The Grog (13 Middle St., Newburyport). Tap takeovers happen all the time, but the lineup for this one is pretty impressive. Featured beers include Ninkaski Brewing’s Double Latte, Electric Ray (Ballast Point), There and Back (New Glarus Brewing), Yvan The Great (Russian River), Myron’s Walk (Allagash), Chico King (3 Floyds), Yonder Bock (Cigar City), and more. Representatives from the participating breweries will be in attendance.Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.