Two years ago around Christmas-time the OOOk Default: club made their own beer. Under the guiding hand of my good friend and home-brewing expert René we set out to create a classic Triple beer. For the bloody foreigners who do not know what a Triple is one website defines it as such: "A triple is most of the time a gold coloured -there are some darker examples- strong top fermented beer. Triples are fruity, yeasty beers, very malty and sweetish beers with a degree of alcohol between 7 and 9".
If I were to define I would probably confuse things a bit by saying that a triple is a beer made with certain kinds of hops and light malts (malts for brewing come in different kinds of darkness due to caramelisation, the darker the malt the darker the beer), fermented first in a vat and then having an extra fermentation in the bottle. To up the alcohol percentage you add a little bit of sugar water to the bottle before putting a cap on it so the alcohol percentage goes up while the beer matures before consumption.
Our joint effort was a roaring success and 2 years after brewing it is still an immensely enjoyable beer. We made about 4 crates (there are 24 bottles in a Dutch crate of beer) with the 5 of us. As supplies were extremely limited diligence was required and I think at this time I am the only one of us that still has a few bottles left. Today I decided to sample one of my last bottles (leaving me just 2, we need to make a new batch of beer soon!) and I must say that it appears to me that the beer has aged very nicely indeed. I may be a bit biased by the above description but I do detect notes of general fruitiness and sweetness. Over the past 2 years the yeasty flavor of a normal triple has all but gone and we are left with a fairly sweet-tasting beer that is slightly heady yet not at all overpowering.
It is often amazing how beer and other alcoholic drinks mature, the difference between a 5 year old whisky and a 30 year old from the same distillery is enough to blow most (normal) people off their socks but even on a more modest time-scale the difference between a home-brewed 6 month old triple beer and a 2 year old is stunning. With age spirits mature and develop. Note: I am not talking about stuff that sits in a bottle doing nothing, a 5 year old whisky that is bought in a shop and sits in a closet for 25 years does not become a 30 year old whisky, for that you need to mature the whisky in a cask before
bottling (as the cask adds flavor to the drink by releasing complex organic compounds like tannins and aromatic oils into the drink). The same principle - of not maturing in a bottle - does not go for beers that have yeast in the bottle like Triples do, as there's still fermentation going on inside the bottle the taste matures and grows. Obviously there is a limit to this. At some point the amount of alcohol will kill the yeast, or, alternatively (and more likely), the amount of sugars in the beer is not enough to sustain the yeast anymore, after that the only differences will be from chemical reactions between the different compounds that make up the taste and at a certain point an equilibrium will be reached where taste will not mature anymore and in fact may degrade due to these chemical reactions.
The hard part is deciding when this point occurs. When we brew a beer do we let it sit in a bottle for six months or for 24 months before we drink it? Does the added time of 18 months make enough of a difference that we would give up some room to let the beer mature or is the difference so small that it's not really worthwhile.
When a brewer like Heineken makes beer they do so in vast quantities*. Their beers do not mature in the bottle but are instead meant for immediate consumption. A bottle that has been produced yesterday wil taste the same as a bottle that was produced a month ago or even 36 months ago, that is part of their appeal, much like a McDonald's hamburger will be more or less the same the world over. This isn't the case for home-brews and that is what makes them so interesting. Because you lose some control you get added benefits, potentially. You could wait too long with drinking and miss out the high point. Generally, from my experience, we drink too soon, but it's sometimes hard to contain oneself when there's an interesting beer waiting for you. Immediate gratification is, well, immediate. And potential future benefits are, well, potential.
I am drinking and enjoying a bottle right now but is it much better than the one I had half a year ago? I am not sure, it seems a bit more fruity, but not by much, it is a bit less yeasty but that could be because the beer was decanted more properly. As taste is a purely subjective experience I could be just be in a better mood today than when I drank the last bottle and therefore enjoy it more. What I do know is that we created a truly memorable beer and that will just have to be enough, after all with two bottles left I can hardly drag this experience out for another 15 years. Saying that, I do have a bottle left from an earlier home-brewing experiment that I forgot about (the bottle, not the brewing). This bottle is close to 18 years old by now but it has been stored in a balcony cupboard outside in freezing and hot temperatures so I am extremely hesitant to open it as I think the years and storage conditions may not have been kind to it.
Here's to the next batch, and the last bottles of OOOk Triple when I do decide to open them.
*) Sidenote: often I am told by foreigners when they learn I'm Dutch is that Heineken is one of the best beers they've ever had. Which always makes a bit sad as Heineken is one of the most tasteless and mundane beers around. In Holland we are spoilt for choice when it comes to normal lagers (most supermarkets stock at least 10 different kinds, at least 6 of them with more character than Heineken) and if we get bored with that we are very close to Belgium, the kings of specialty beers, so a lot of those are easily available in supermarkets and specialty stores here.