Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Lesson in Beer Aging: Bells The Oracle

I didn't really get into craft beer until the fall of last year.  Meaning, I wasn't always aware of how special some brews are.  Sometime this winter I read more about a beer made by one of my favorite breweries, Bells Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  The beer is called The Oracle.  I am a sucker for a double IPA.  Bells Oracle, according to Rate Beer, is among the best Double IPA's out there.  As I read about it further, I discovered that this is usually an August-ish release, and it's usually quite a small amount.  

August?  Wait.  My anniversary is in August and the first stop on our way to South Haven, Michigan was in Kalamazoo at Bell's......I know I took a photo of the tap list from that day, let me dig that up.  Sure enough, there it was.  Oracle Double IPA on tap when I visited, and I didn't even realize it.  Instead, that day I enjoyed the Rye Stout and Deb's Red.  Needless to say, when I initially discovered what I missed, I was pretty bummed.  Of course I am hoping to catch this beer when it comes out in August again.
Then Monday of this week happened.  Wife sent me to the post office and afterwards I stopped by the local Whole Foods market because sometimes they have beer gems.  Lo and behold, I found a bottle of The Oracle on the shelf.  At first I was shocked, and then the shock quickly turned to sadness as I realized that the beer has a bottle date of 8/2011 and is likely way past its prime.  I decided to grab it and give it a chance anyway.

Choose your vessel:  Bells Tulip, 12oz.

Nice Lacing
The Pour:  This one poured a hazy deep orange color.  A very nice looking beer with a 2 finger foam head that clung to the glass.  Sadly, the most impressive aspect of this tasting would prove to be the incredible lacing that remained on the glass.  Which shows that at some point this beer had some resinous hop action to it.

Aroma:  My first indication that this beer was past its prime.  Smelled sweet.  Sugary sweet.  Malt is the predominant aroma, which is not what you want from an IPA....let alone a double IPA.  I did get some faint hop aromas, slight citrus and floral notes.  Those aromas led me to believe that I would actually taste them.

Taste: Malt, malt, and more malt.  If this one had been stored in a cooler, there may have been a chance the hop flavor would at least have been noticeable.  To make matters worse, the alcohol has now become more noticeable in the beer.  So you have a sweet, malty, alcohol flavored mess of a beer here.  No hops noticeable at all.  Tasted more like a barleywine than a double IPA, and Barleywine's are not my thing.

Overall:  Despite my knowledge that this experiment would not end well, I was still disappointed and just sad.  Sad that this particularly beer wasn't enjoyed the way it should have been.

Conclusion:  When I checked out at the register, I talked with the cashier about how this beer was past its prime.  She asked "beer doesn't really go bad does it?"  I then explained to her how certain beers do well with age, and certain beers do not.  Beers that are supposed to showcase the hops (and other flavors like coffee and/or chilis) do lose those flavors with time.  It's a sad fact of beer.  Bells indicates on their website a shelf life of 6 months for this beer, and I bought it at 10 months.  I knew this wasn't going to go well, but I decided that this poor bottle needed to be put out of its shelf-life waiting misery.  What I did gain from this was a sense of what this beer is supposed to be.  The faint citrus and floral hop aroma I got indicated to me that, when fresh, the beer is likely a hop monster that is balanced with a heavy malt presence in the backbone.  Definitely a beer that under normal circumstances would be right up my ally.  I wish I would have known last August that it was on tap at Bells when I visited.  After I purchased the Oracle, I had a brief twitter conversation with Bells about it.  They reported that the aroma would be noticeably different, but that the beer might still be ok.  Sadly, it was a dead bottle.

The moral of the story:  Drink your IPA's, Double IPA's, and any beers that have flavors like Coffee or chili. These beers are definitely best when consumed as fresh as possible.

Have you had experiences with beers like this?  What's in your fridge that you need to get to now?


  1. I once drank a bud light that was way past it's expiration. It was flat and gross. :)

    1. yes, even Bud Light can go bad if left unconsumed. really only beers with high abv's age well because the alcohol stands up to the process. imperial stouts are best for aging...i could give you a couple beers to age and let you see how this works if you want....