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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Researching the Obvious by Vertical

When you're thinking about cellaring beer for a later vertical tasting, the best choice probably isn't or shouldn't be a hoppy winter ale that's designed to be consumed fresh. But the world isn't a perfect place. Plus, some people are nerds.

Regardless of all that, you don't turn down a chance to partake in a vertical tasting of Sierra Nevada Celebration going back 30 years. Nope. The oldest bottle was from 1989, the year I packed up and moved to the Portland area. Some of my millennial beer friends were babies or not yet born. Yup.

We started off the tasting with the 2018 vintage. Starting fresh and working your way back through the years allows you to get a snootful of what the beer should taste like and how it declines down through time. In theory.

The problem with that approach is there are differences in packaging (several years of twist-on caps) and unknown variations in how the different years were stored and handled. As well, I'm guessing there were slight differences in Celebration over the years, for any number of reasons.

For the unaware, Celebration was first brewed in 1981. It arrived on the scene long before Americans imagined the concept of India Pale Ale and offered an example of what the style could be, might be. Celebration has always been seriously hop forward and focused on citrus and pine notes and tropical flavors. Its hop-centric character was/is offset by a thicker and darker backbone, a feature that has been almost completely abandoned by modern IPAs.

I first tasted Celebration a generation ago, as far as I can recall. This would have been in the days when Full Sail Amber was considered fairly bitter. At the time, Widmer Hefeweizen was also considerably more bitter than it is today, a factoid revealed to me in a private tasting with Ben Dobler during Widmer's 30th anniversary year. I don't remember being particularly fond of Celebration on that first taste, though the concept did eventually grow on me.

In fact, Celebration became a sort of role model for what aggressive winter beers would become. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, they say, and Celebration set the standard for the craft breweries that followed Sierra Nevada. As IPAs took hold, those wanting to come up with a hoppy winter ale effectively reversed engineered Celebration.

Full Sail's Wreck the Halls is a good example of the style here in Oregon. Beers like Deschutes Jubelale and Full Sail's Wassail, among others, were nice winter ales. But they were malt-driven. Wreck the Halls, designed by then-Full Sail brewer John Harris, was aggressively hopped, a bold winter IPA and a direct descendant of Celebration. Countless others have followed to the point that most contemporary winter ales are excessively hopped.

As we started to churn through the vintages, the dropoff in hop aroma and flavor was not terrible for beers packaged within the last 8-9 years. There were some obvious ups and downs in those beers, perhaps revealing damage related to how they were stored or handled. Still, this group held up fairly well. Many tasters picked the 2018 as their favorite, but opinions were mixed.

Going back another decade, to beers packaged between 2000 and 2010, there was a steep dropoff in hop presence. No surprise. These beers, for the most part, had not disintegrated entirely, but were on the downhill slide. In most cases, it was like drinking an aged amber ale with mild hop essence. There were a few exceptions, beers that held up better than the group as a whole.

The final decade, beers from 1989-1999, revealed with brutal honesty what happens to these beers with age. Although a couple of them held up better than expected, most were lifeless. They presented as thin malt tea or, worse, soy sauce. Hop presence had faded almost completely in this set.

I should mention that there were a few gaps in the collection. Beers from 24 vintages were tasted, along with a shorter vertical of Bigfoot, which held up considerably better than Celebration. A fine time was had by everyone who attended, and it was instructive. Thanks to Nicole Kasten and Mike Perkins for generously hosting, and to everyone who provided beer.

What empirical lesson was learned? Only that cellaring hoppy beers for an eventual vertical tasting has some serious pitfalls and that these beers are best when fresh. So nothing we didn't already know. But proving the point once again was great fun.

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