Point: when it comes to good beer, freshness counts for a lot.
Counterpoint: most homebrewers (myself included) “release” their beer before its peak.
Think about a beer you had at a brewery’s taproom, where it travels maybe 20 yards from its inception, versus a serving of the exact same beer that’s been shipped all over hell’s half acre and done time in a warehouse or two. Think about every Eurolager you’ve ever had that traversed the Atlantic before sitting right under a display fridge’s fluorescent bulb in its green bottle. The fluffiness of a Weissbier or the oily immediacy of a hop-forward pale ale are not things that improve with time.
Still: balance in all things, right? There’s something to be said for patience, and I re-learn those lessons from time to time even after the better part of two decades brewing at home.
Case study 1: 2012 wet-hopped Double IPA.
Like most of the country, we had a hot, dry summer here in MN and my backyard hops didn’t yield nearly the volume that they have in years past, but it seems like the strenuous growing conditions caused what cones were produced to have high concentrations of oils. The Centennial in particular seemed extra-resiny and sticky this year – powerful sugary, candylike lemongrass-orange citrus and dried herbs (mint or even rosemary?). My fingers were coated in green-gold hop glue after picking a couple pounds, then mesh-bagging and tossing them straight into 10 gallons of conditioning double IPA (based on the Pliny recipe published in Zymurgy a while back).
After 7 days, I separated the hops and racked the beer to kegs for carbonation. Another 7 days or so after that, samples poured of this 7.5% abv beer (about 4 weeks old at this point) were so aggressive with hop acid as to be almost undrinkable, the hop character one-dimensionally grassy and biting, nothing like the intense Centennialness of the fresh cones. I left the kegs in the lager locker at 35 F while I regretted the potency of homegrown Centennials and pondered brewing another beer to blend it with or aging it for a couple years to make some kind of West Coast-ified stock ale thing.
Vintners describe bottle shock, a phenomenon whereby a wine that’s perfectly sound in the barrel temporarily turns to crap after the (apparently traumatic) agitation of bottling, only to regain its mellow after a week or two. Maybe this was my first run-in with hop shock, because just a couple weeks later it was a miraculously different beer: the much-missed alcohol and malt stepped out of the shadows and the aromatics of the hop profile settled down into a citrus-orchard haze, a glass-coating and towering white meringue reminiscent of Tammy Wynette’s hair in the 1960s. It had smoothed out so much that even my double IPA-averse wife asked for her own snifter of it … and finished it! Citizens, I’ve brewed many highly-hopped beers and know more or less what to expect as they age, but this was a new one for me. Maybe it was the crop year, maybe it was a little more cold-conditioning, maybe it was Chinatown.
Lesson: trust the beer, give it time, don’t mess with it.
Upcoming case study: Brainhurter the Russian Imperial Stout. Stay tuned.