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Vertical beer tastings (trying multiple years of the same beer) are an absolute blast. It’s possible to do these on your own, but they’re way more fun to do with a group of friends. Not only is it more social, but since you’re usually drinking boozier beers, having more people makes it more practical.
There is something really exciting about getting to crack open a set of beers you’ve aged for years, try them one after another, talk about how they’ve changed, and debate what years are best.
A vertical beer tasting is trying multiple years (or "vintages") of the same beer at once. For example, I recently did a four-year vertical of Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout from Cigar City Brewing.
The lineup included, from left to right in the image:
There are other “types” of vertical tastings you can do, and I go into detail about those in the cellaring guide I wrote, but most of the time when people say they’re doing a vertical it’s multiple years of the same beer.
You need at least two different years of a beer to make it a vertical tasting (duh). In my experience, the most common are three or five-year verticals, but I’ve also been part of really large vertical tastings spanning over seven years.
In Christmas of 2019, my family and I finally got to break into a five-year vertical of Hunahpu we collected over a number of years. You'll notice this also includes the 2018 Barrel-Aged Cuvee variant and the two new variants of the 2019 (the white and red labels at the far right). In this case, it was vertical tasting that also included a number of annual variants.
In short, it’s really fun to be able to see how a specific beer changes over time. Sure you can do that by having one beer each year and taking notes, but there’s something much more satisfying (and accurate) about experiencing the nuanced flavor changes beer experiences over multiple years, in one sitting.
Always work from the oldest to youngest beer when you’re doing a multi-year vertical. In our Hunahpu example, you would start with the 2016 bottle and work your way to the 2019 bottle. When possible, I like to try and do side-by-side samples of each year with the current year. For example, open the 2016 bottle and try some, and then take a sip of the fresh bottle from 2019. Then move to the 2017 bottle, etc. This often makes it easier to notice subtle differences from year to year.
Overall the flavors in older beers will tend to be less harsh and more palatable, so they won’t impact the next beer you taste. This is the same rationale we use when deciding what beers to have in a normal beer tasting - you go from most palatable to least - to prevent palate fatigue.
You can build verticals of just about any age-able beer you want. However, we know that just because you can age a beer, doesn’t mean you should. If you want to get started, there are a number of easy to find beers (for most people) you can start building verticals of now.
If you want to start with a three-year vertical, choose one of your favorite “aging-eligible” beers and purchase three bottles this year. Take one and put it aside to drink, and then put the other two in a box in your closet (remember, cool consistent temperature away from sunlight) and forget about them.
Next year (2021) buy two more bottles. That means at this point you’ll have:
Now you can grab one of your 2020 bottles and one of your 2021 bottles and try them side by side! This is a fun way to see how one year of age will be on a beer.
Next year (2022) go ahead and buy one more bottle, which will complete your three-year vertical. Now you should have:
This is where you get to enjoy a three-year vertical! Ask yourself:
This is the fun part, and oftentimes different people pick up on different changes.
Doing vertical tastings is an absolute blast. However know that sometimes beer simply doesn’t age well, and that’s ok! I’ve done a number of vertical tastings that took me years to build that ended up being flops. It happens sometimes, and you live and learn.
The most important thing to do is to have fun and give it a shot!