ACTUAL EXCHANGE OVERHEARD ON A FACEBOOK GROUP THREAD:
"I need some help getting rid of six cans of [insert famous IPA here]. Picked them up at the brewery seven weeks ago."
"Wow - that beer is OLD."
What the hell has happened to people's tastes that a seven-week-old beer is old? I'll grant you that if it's a particularly hops-aroma-forward beer, you want it as fresh as you can get it, but old?
Well, rather than go off on a jag about how beer geeks' palates have (allegedly) become so refined that they NEEEEEEED a beer that's no more than 21 days old (and I'd love to test their sensitivities and have them predict the age on their favorite IPA based on nothing but aroma), I think we'll talk about ways to set yourself up for success and brew beers - particularly hops-forward beers - that can actually hold up to some shelf time. We'll save the "supertasters'" sensitivity test for a future Beer Culture post, when I find the time to put together some good data (should be able to get that done by June).
I take two approaches to this: recipe design and handling. And don't worry - we're not going to belabor the "store it cold, avoid oxidation, blah blah blah" aspects of this.
First, if you're hoping for better shelf "life" on hops aroma, then don't use a huge mash-up of your favorite varieties of hops. Pick one that, in your water and recipes and system, seems to come through clearly without blending, and then schedule a substantial addition of it. It can be very hard (borderline impossible, as I hope to demonstrate in that upcoming Beer Culture post) to accurately evaluate the amplitude of a specific hops aroma and predict its age, but I can certainly buy the idea that you can notice if that aroma/flavor changes in character rather than amplitude when one of your blended hops fades faster than the others. And before anyone jumps on me, I'm sure you can tell them apart by amplitude if you have samples to compare - but unless you're routinely serving someone identical-but-for-age beers at the same exact time, that's irrelevant.
Second, avoid crystal malts in general, and Crystal 60 in particular. I've read some convincing academic research that suggests that the melanoidins in crystal malts are hostile to hops oils at the molecular level (and that the 60 is especially so). From a straight flavor perspective, I also notice that hops can struggle to present against a toffee-centric background. I aim high and low in my hoppy grists - base malts and 20s-ish Lovibond character malts, and 300+ Lovibond chocolate malts.
Third, write a recipe that uses late boil hops, whirlpool hops, and dry hops. Both my and others' experiments (primitive and imperfect though they might be) have consistently found that multiple hops treatments yield larger aromatic effects, which means that you're starting from a higher "drop-off" point, extending shelf life. Having said that, and this is where I'm afraid anecdote has to come in, I've noticed a sharper decline when I use more dry hops. This is a repeat of the first point, in a way: to my palate (and maybe yours, others), dry hops present distinctly from warm-side hops (whether boiled or whirlpooled). When that character goes away or diminishes, I notice the change. So, while I use dry hops, I don't go overboard with them - usually not more than one ounce per 4.25 gallons.
Last, I tend to select for citrus hops if I want persistent aroma, particularly the lemon-lime notes we get out of many New Zealand/Australian hops. They cut through the air and are easily-recognizable to our senses, so even when they're much less potent they seem bigger than they are. I don't notice the same from the mango or stone fruit flavored hops, and definitely not from the herbal/floral European or old school New World hops.
And to head off the question, I'm agnostic on whether powders/hashes are actually creating bigger character: they may, they may not. Use them if you want.
If you want the hops flavor/aroma in that beer to last, KEG IT. This is going to serve two functions. First, while some flush their bottles with CO2 at packaging and some don't, nearly EVERY kegger I know flushes their kegs with CO2 before racking into them. Less oxygen (yay). BUT, and this one is apparently based on real science in at least one food sciences journal article I jumped behind a paywall to read, vibration breaks up and volatilizes hops oils. Maybe that should seem more intuitive to me, but it doesn't, for whatever reason. However, if you're bottling and hoping for longer hops shelf life, the subtle shaking and bumping of bottle handling is going to degrade the oils you want to be able to perceive. Kegs, on the other hand, will just sit there. Bottle/growler up what you need, when you need it.
Whether bottling OR kegging, increase carbonation levels. Higher CO2 levels (say, 2.5-2.6 volumes of CO2) increase the punch of most aromatics, including hops. This might be a particularly diabolical way of maintaining a steady perception of hops character in your kegged beer: serve it "on the way up" to full carbonation, and over several days your lower-than-target carbonated IPA/pale ale will have roughly equal hops aroma as your fully-carbed-but-slightly-older version. But in any case, a spritzier presentation will make it seem hoppier than it actually is.
You can also cheat on this and give everyone a smaller glass with a bigger bell (snifters rather than shakers), forcing them to go back to the tap/bottle more often and pour into glassware that will provide a crutch for their olfactory perceptions by capturing more of those volatile compounds.
I do also need to make a pitch - however obvious - for cold storage and limiting oxygen pickup. Anything that stales or ages your beer is bad for hops character. There. Cliche served.
How Much Time Do I Have, Doc?
All beers have fading flavors over time. This is, in some ways, a question of rate - and don't assume it's linear. You may well have a drop-off from an initial peak of hops flavor, but good recipe design and handling will flatten out the rate of decay on that curve.
Your hoppy beers will be best in the first month or so. But they're still (or can be) really, really good for months after that. My oldest medal-winning hoppy beer was a 14-month-old American Amber Ale, and I've had IPAs that score well and win at 10+ months of age.
Some minor recipe design tweaks and solid basics on handling (with, again, minor specialized adjustments) can keep your hoppy beer hoppy for a good long while.
Seven weeks. Please.
Keep it simple.
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