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In a traditional beer tasting, participants typically get to experiment with a range of different beers as part of a certain theme, such as beers of a similar style or geographic region. A vertical tasting, though, raises the stakes by encourages beer lovers to experience a series of different vintages of a specific beer. By tasting at least five different vintages of a single beer, it’s possible to judge and analyze how the flavour of that beer evolves over time.
If this concept sounds familiar, it’s because it is a concept quite popular in the wine world, where cellaring fine wines for extended ageing is common. Cellaring beers, though, is much less popular, and that’s why vertical tastings have caught on with serious beer enthusiasts who want to experience different versions of their favourite beers. Over time, for example, a barleywine beer begins to mellow, showing notes of caramel while downplaying any hop aromas or flavours. It can be very rewarding to see how that process happens over the span of a few years.
Of course, not all beers are well suited for a vertical tasting. The best prospects for a vertical tasting – that is, the beers that are most likely to age well – are darker, higher-alcohol beers. Favourites for vertical tastings include imperial stouts, barleywines, barrel-aged beers and strong ales.
In fact, among craft beer enthusiasts, there are several names that always get mentioned as a potential vertical tasting prospect. The Sierra Nevada, for example, has been making a Bigfoot barleywine since the early 1980s. This barleywine ages well and is relatively easy to find nationally, due to the spectacular success of Sierra Nevada in general.
Another favourite choice for vertical tastings is Anchor Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale, which has been brewed for 44 years, ever since 1975. Each Christmas Ale is carefully marked with the year, so it is relatively easy to find prior vintages of this Anchor Brewing Company beer dating back five, six, or even seven years. The Christmas theme of the beer makes it a natural for vertical tastings around the holidays and can be used to celebrate special wintertime anniversaries.
There are plenty of other good prospects as well. Firestone Walker Brewing Company, for example, has a special edition Anniversary Ale that is released each year. To make each year’s edition, Firestone Walker gathers together local brewers and asks them to blend together different Firestone aged beers, leading to a unique creation each year. Thus, a vertical tasting of Firestone Walker is really a celebration of different expressions of Firestone beer over the years.
And, given the popularity of bourbon barrel-aged beers, it’s perhaps no surprise that Goose Island Bourbon Country Barrel Stout (BCBS) also gets mentioned as a natural fit for a vertical tasting. The extra ageing in bourbon barrels imparts a unique flavour and aroma profile to these beers.
Organizing a vertical tasting takes a bit more logistical preparedness than organizing a traditional beer tasting. For one, it’s important to track down at least 5 different vintages of a specific beer (not necessarily all from years in sequential order). The easiest beers to track down, of course, are those with a truly national footprint, which is one big reason why both Anchor Brewing and the Sierra Nevada are two of the most common favourites. Dogfish Head 120 Minute is also a popular favourite, due to the popularity of Dogfish Head along the East Coast. For those beer drinkers with a preference for strong Belgian beers, Chimay is also a perennial favourite with organizers of vertical tastings.
Secondly, most vertical tastings are arranged with the help of a chef or other professional cook who can perfectly match the flavour profiles of a beer with food. This is unlike a traditional beer tasting, which might proceed well enough with just a few starchy snacks, like pretzels. When you’ve been saving a beer for a decade, you want to make the occasion special. Some vertical tastings, for example, feature Lambic ales that have been aged 20 to 25 years. After that period of time, you really need the right food accompaniment to celebrate that beer properly.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that it’s important to make sure that any beers that will be sampled during the vertical tasting have been properly cellared. Beer should have been properly stored in a cool, dark place for the entire time of its ageing.
Since vertical tastings have a strong social component to them, it’s expected that participants will fully interact with the beer, document their notes and comments about changing taste profiles over time, and perhaps even post epic photos of the event on social media platforms like Instagram.
Of course, not everybody is a fan of vertical tasting. Some breweries, for example, will specifically state that their beers should not be cellared and that they should be enjoyed when issued. They claim that beers are released at the ideal time for drinking them. This leads to the most natural issue with vertical tastings – the issue of quality control. Cellaring a beer is very much different from cellaring wine – there’s much less ability to predict how the beer will evolve over time.
And that leads to another objection: many of the trendiest “of the moment” beers do not make for good ageing candidates. Thus, there is very little incentive to take the beers that you are enjoying now and save them for later. Years from now, it means that these low-alcohol or light beers will not be able to be used as part of vertical tastings.
But that is not stopping beer enthusiasts from organizing some truly epic vertical tastings. It’s no longer out of the question, for example, to hear about a 12-year vertical of Firestone Walker’s Anniversary Ale or a 10-year vertical of Anchor Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale. Beer cellars are full of great beers, and it’s time to enjoy them in a fun, unique setting that will enable you to enjoy them in a new, more nuanced manner.