Rob (via blog comment): How long can I age the annual Christmas Ale and still have it taste the way you would want it to taste? I have a few small 2013 bottles left from last year, and my local beer/ wine store still has some large 2013 bottles for sale? Still good?
Bob: Around this time of year I often get asked about how well our Christmas Ale ages. I believe that our Christmas Ale — which is a wonderful and unique product with its fragrant hop aroma and palate, its blend of holiday spices, and its full malty character — is best enjoyed fresh. That being said, we have had some of our Xmas ale that has been cellared for over ten years that held up well. I’ve been asked many times if it improves with age, but saying so would imply that it is not at its best fresh. Instead, I prefer to say that it “lays down well.” In my experience, the changes that occur in cellaring are most pronounced within the first three to five years. These changes include mellowing of the spices and a softening of the hops.
As a rule, well-packaged stronger and more full-bodied beers will age well if properly handled. They are, however, not eternal and there are some things to consider. We have encountered barley wines and strong ales that have held up for ten or more years when stored in a cool cellar environment. We have also encountered the same beers that have been subjected to temperature fluctuations and rough handling that have not done as well.
Anchor Christmas Ale does very well if stored properly. It will change though, as all aged beers do. The first and second year changes will be the most noticeable as the sharper hop and spice notes become more subtle and muted. The overall impression is of a softer and more rounded palate. Year three continues this profile but with less pronounced change. By year four there will be almost no standout hop or spice flavors, and by year five the subtleties of each vintage will be harder to distinguish.
I prefer years one through three myself, depending on the hop and spice profile of the original vintage. Obviously, if there is more hop and spice to begin with, there will be more carryover from year-to-year as the product ages, but by year five they all pretty much taste the same. Not necessarily bad, but not very interesting either.
I did a ten-year vertical tasting of our Christmas Ales once and found that by year seven, they really all did taste the same – and frankly, not very good.
So, what to take away from this? Anchor Christmas Ale ages very well for the first three years if kept cool and undisturbed. The conditions of cellaring make a big difference. The bottles must be kept cool, under 50 degrees if possible. They shouldn’t be shaken up or roughly moved around. Probably the most important thing is not to allow the beer to undergo big temperature fluctuations. A few degrees here and there is OK, but keeping it in the garage where it gets up to 90 in the summer and down to 20 in the winter will do damage. A good rule is if you have it in a cool cellar or refrigerator (the best cellar there is). Don’t take it out until you want to drink it.
Four years and older, it will be drinkable but not remarkable. After that, I would suggest simply adding the bottle to your collection rather than drinking it. With that said, we have people each holiday season who participate in multi-year verticals and tell us they enjoyed Anchor Christmas Ales brewed eight or ten years ago (sometimes longer). That may be nostalgia talking, but I’ll leave that up to the tastes of the individual.
There is an exception to this in that the larger magnum bottles seem to do better. Probably because they are a bit more insulated from temperature changes. I have also had retail customers who have saved kegs from year-to-year in their refrigerators which have held up remarkably well. In one case for five or six years, but this is not necessarily recommended.
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