How Long Can You Store Beer? Featuring 2014 OEC Phantasma

James Gribbon

In which I hope to survive this column's publishing.

Most beer is best when it is as fresh as possible. The ability to buy beer at the source of its manufacture has completely changed how Americans interact with their brew, and it's given brewers the chance to utilize ingredients with increasing fragility of flavor. The concept is not a new one, really. In order to ensure quality, macrobrewers have spent untold dollars figuring out how long their beer lasts under different conditions, and have been printing Born On dates on their cans for well over a decade. On the other end, small brewer whale-chasers have approached a lunatic fringe in threatening to pour their own IPAs down the drain should they have been bottled and sold in more than the space of a workday.  

For the next few weeks in this space I'll be attempting to find out how long certain beers can be cellared like fine wines. What happens to them? How do they change, and what's it like to drink them? I'll be trying beers from several brewers; some which have been made specifically to drink after resting, but most decidedly not. 

It's all very glib to joke about, but dying from drinking a beer would not be my ideal choice. I have no deep knowledge of microbial viability, no foundation of food science research on which to base the stakes of my health today. By my sketchy math, the Phantasma Sour (Blend #1, 4/22/2014) I'm about to drink was bottled 539 days ago - in a not-very-airtight 750mL swing cap growler, the only kind offered at the time by OEC Brewery in Oxford. I bought it the day they opened, and I'm about to drink it now. You will now bear witness to either my joy, misery, or both, in chronological order.

I've just broken the seal on the swing cap with a loud POP, and out flows a little fog of CO2, followed closely by a school project's worth of light brown foam. The evidence suggests the yeasts have been doing their work. 

OEC calls Phantasma Sour "our interpretation of an old style German Porter (a style that went extinct long ago), brewed with wheat, oats, molasses and licorice root."

The aroma puts off an invisible could of raisin, with the beer itself roughly the same color. The head piles up in a tall accumulation of fine-grained bubbles before settling down into an eighth-inch of obstinate foam. 

Down the hatch... 

Phantasma was a bold, roasty, powerfully sour ale when it was fresh, from my recollection. The acidity has mellowed significantly to a mild tartness, which fades into a parching, tannic dryness. Molasses is somehow still an attendant flavor, despite undergoing extended bottle conditioning. The normally smooth depths produced by wheat and oats are now shot through with a grassy funk, courtesy not of the original fermentation, but of its first refermentation, pre-blend, in Zinfandel (Napa, CA), whiskey/Pinot Noir (Portland, OR), and Belgian Owl whiskey (Belgium) barrels. The Brett character seems to be turned up now, like reflexively increasing the volume when a song you like comes on. The biggest surprise is truly odd: I've put enough skinned knuckles and slashed fingers in my mouth over the years for my brain to interpret some of what I'm drinking as blood. I couldn't begin to tell you where that profile stems from, but it's there for just an instant in the first sip before the molasses, cocoa, and the woody finish.

Almost a year after this growler was filled, and over a year ago, I talked to OEC's assistant brewer, Tony Pellino, at the first ever Connecticut brewer's summit at Two Roads. At that point, I'd been saving the Phantasma for... something. I didn't know what, exactly, but it would need to be special, worthy of the beer. It may seem kind of ridiculous, but that's the idea I had in my head at the time. Did he think it would be OK, or had I ruined it?

"You can't kill that beer," was his answer, without a second's reflection. "We've left it out, got it hot, sat it in the sun, forgot about it - it should be fine." That was when I had the idea, March of 2015 - that's when I decided to put the beer to the test. That's how long I've been waiting to write this column, and the few to come. 

I can't pretend to call the Old Beer Project a scientific test. I didn't exercise much control, and all I can give is a subjective opinion, but it is an experience, and I'm learning. These trials may be a little more akin to the archeo-chemistry Joseph Priestly was practicing when he collected a gas for all he knew was toxic and decided to huff it. Like him, I have every intention to do it again. Stay tuned.

Beer: OEC Brewing Phantasma Sour Blend #1 (2014)

Age: 539 days since bottling

Result: Glorious