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What is a Vertical Tasting?

What is a Vertical Tasting? Photo Courtesy Perrin Brewing Co.
What is a Vertical Tasting? Photo Courtesy Perrin Brewing Co.

Beer is often best enjoyed in the company of others, and few events offer a chance to bring people together like a vertical tasting.

Bottle shares are a common occurrence in the world of beer, but vertical tastings can take it up a notch by sharing a series of different vintages of one specific beer. For some beers, like imperial stouts, barleywines, barrel-aged beers and strong ales, enjoying iterations of the same beer from across many years offers a look into the world of flavor evolution.

Cellars across the world are full of excellent beers, with some collectors accumulating the same beer year after year. There comes a point when a collection of 10 years’ worth of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine, or another beer, are meant to make an appearance. Yes, Bigfoot is an amazing beer and the vertical tasting will showcase how it evolves when aging, but the bigger draw of a vertical tasting for some is the gathering.

“Half the fun is getting together with people,” said Chris Jacobs, who runs the Beer Zombies Instagram account and recently did a 10-year vertical tasting of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Anniversary Ale. “We had a chef there and he cooked for us, pairing with the beer. Everything that goes along with it, it’s more fun than just opening a beer.”

Of course, saving the beer for a decade or more can make the anticipation of finally opening it worth a lot on its own.

Jacobs said he’s done many vertical tastings, most with at least five versions of a beer to ensure a solid comparison. Classic and fairly easy to gather beers for vertical tastings include Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale and Old Foghorn Barleywine, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine, Surly Brewing’s Darkness and Barrel-Aged Darkness, and Three Floyds Dark Lord (which famously has its own epic beer festival).

Verticals are somewhat controversial, as most brewers intend on their beers being released at a time ideal for drinking. Some breweries even publicly state not to age their beers — so saving some for more than 20 years like a Bigfoot can be blasphemous. Or not.



A prototypical vertical tasting example, Anchor Brewing's Christmas Ale will see its 44th iteration this Christmas.
Photo Courtesy Anchor Brewing


“We believe in releasing beer ready to drink, but we do recognize there are some beers that are good candidates for aging that develop and change,” Boulevard Brewing Ambassador Brewer Jeremy Danner said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do [vertical tastings] with people and they are a lot of fun and I understand why people like them.”

Properly stored in cool, dark places, the right styles of beer can mature at a good pace. Some beers contain live yeast that continues to work over the years, changing a beer’s flavor, aroma and appearance as it waits to be imbibed. Beer styles like IPAs and lighter lagers don’t make for good aging candidates as their best qualities drop off quickly, within weeks or months, and can be left thin, tasteless or open to infections and off-flavors.

Danner has done two vertical tastings with Boulevard beers and documented them on the brewery’s website: Saison Brett and Lovechild. He said brewers often approach beer tastings differently, so it’s fun to see how consumers interact with the beer and what they’re tasting.

“It’s fun because I get to hear from people who buy the beer, the way they talk about it and perceive change,” Danner said. “When we taste, we’re doing it in a different manner and not really opening up our minds. We talk ourselves out of a more positive experience than if we were doing it for fun.”

While Chris Jacobs said half the fun is getting people together, the other half is exploring the way the flavors have changed over a long period of time.

“Just trying to delve into the flavors is rewarding,” Jacobs said. “Coffee falls off the quickest, and when it comes to bourbon barrels, you get more barrel and less heat the longer you wait. Everything adds its own playful flavors.”

A 10-year Firestone Anniversary vertical tasting is a big undertaking, but Jacobs is already planning several, and he said he’d pay big money to take part in an “epic Lambic vertical tasting,” like a series of aged Cantillon Gueuze or Kriek, beers which have a suggested aging time of 20-25 years.



An epic twelve-year Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale vertical tasting is a big undertaking but definitely worthwhile.
Photo Courtesy Firestone Walker Brewing Co.


Candidates for Vertical Tastings

Sierra Nevada Bigfoot

Sierra Nevada started producing Bigfoot in the early 1980s, and it is an easy, yet fantastic, beer to accumulate for a vertical tasting. It’s fairly easy to procure a 10-year vertical of Bigfoot Barleywine as Sierra Nevada’s offerings are among the easiest to obtain nationwide and the barleywine style is a great candidate for aging. Often hop-forward as a fresh beer with a big booze bite, they mellow out over time with caramel notes coming up big from big malt bills.


Founders KBS

In recent years with Founders Brewing’s massive expansions, its renowned KBS, or Kentucky Breakfast Stout, has become much more readily available. Older vintages are much harder to come by but also worth a taste. Coffee fades quickly, but the rest of the flavors are bold enough to stand up to age, especially when the booziness wears off.


Firestone Anniversary Ale

The fantastic California brewery puts out a wide range of vertical-worthy beers, like Parabola and Sucaba, but its Anniversary Ale is a fun variation made in collaboration with area winemakers who blend different Firestone aged beers into the annual release. It’s different every year, but generally made with similar beers, so it’s fun to compare.


Goose Island BCBS

Goose Island lays claim to starting the bourbon barrel-aged stout phenomenon, so the Bourbon County Brand Stout vertical might be the ultimate vertical tasting. Big and boozy, BCBS will see fruitiness come out the longer it waits. The beer also might thin out, with barrel notes more apparent as the alcohol fades.


Dogfish Head 120 Minute

An Imperial IPA by name, this classic extreme beer is truly more like a heavily hopped barleywine or strong ale. At 18 percent and full of hops, it can be far too strong and bitter for even seasoned IPA drinkers. Let it age a few years and the bitter hops and boozy bite mellow out, perfectly showcased in a seven-year or so vertical tasting.


Photo Courtesy Boulevard Brewing Co.

Boulevard Saison Brett

Boulevard’s Danner said his Saison Brett tasting was a fun one with two noticeable changes. One ‒a reason IPAs are bad candidates ‒ the hops faded fast. Saison Brett doesn’t have much by way of dry hops, so it was fairly easy for him to notice in a five-year vertical. Second, the Brettanomyces yeast comes up stronger as it continues to work. Weirder yet, due to reasons even he said doesn’t understand, the older versions see hops come back and the Brett fade. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean the hops won’t be there,” he noted.


Bottle Logic Fundamental Observation

This California beer is among the next up for Jacobs, who said he’s been waiting for the fifth edition of Bottle Logic Brewing’s Imperial Stout with vanilla. He’ll keep it at five years since vanilla drops off quickly when aging. This beer is an example of what Jacobs says is problem common with vertical tastings: “It’s so good I end up drinking them and need to make sure to mark one of them to save.”


Chimay

Classic Belgian beers — from breweries such as Chimay, Orval and Duvel — are perfect candidates for verticals, partly because they’ve been around for so long, but also because the beers stand up wonderfully to aging — and the brewers even condone it. Like wines, Belgian strong beers can turn, but if stored properly and a bit of good luck, the aging just makes the best parts of an already great beer shine brighter.


Perrin No Rules

With each vintage signified by a cartoon caricature of Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski” holding a different-colored bowling ball, it’s easy to tell different years. Only a few years old, this “Vietnamese porter” clocks in at 15 percent ABV with a variety of adjuncts. Coconut, cinnamon, turbinado sugar and barrel-aging help provide plenty of flavors to track in a four-year vertical.


Future of Verticals

Jacobs said he does feel that the vertical tasting is losing its popularity as the much-hyped beer styles en vogue don’t age well, breweries are offering fewer annual releases, quality control issues at some breweries can make it harder to trust that an aging beer will hold up, and instant gratification is the norm.

That being said, verticals offer a unique tasting experience for craft lovers of all stripes, especially when concentrating on classic breweries and beers.