There is a good post up on the Dogfish Head Blog about the basics of aging beer, and in that spirit lets take a look at why you would want to hide your beer away instead of just drinking it, what beers are best suited to improve with age, and the details on how to store your precious brews.
Why Not Just Drink the Beer?
Beer, like wine and cheese and cigars, is an agricultural product that changes and develops over time. An aged beer will, generally, taste more rounded and even; it’s highest and lowest notes smoothed out. While most commercial beers have the yeast filtered from them before packaging, some “bottle conditioned” beers still have live yeast present in the bottle and they will continue to act on, and alter the flavor of, the beer for many months or years. Some bottle-conditioned beers also include a variant strain of brewers yeast called brettanomyces. This species of yeast is added very late in the brewing process and its impact on a beer’s flavor is more difficult to detect in fresh beer. However, give the brett a few months to work and the subtle dry and tart flavors gain prominence.
An aged beer can be quite distinct from the same beer from a recent batch, and one of the most interesting aspects of aging beer is a “vertical tasting” where the same beer from several different years are tasted side-by-side to highlight the developments. Maybe you got a little carried away and bought a couple of bottles of a beer you hadn’t tried (or worse yet, a whole case), and it turns out you’re not a huge fan of the fresh beer. Maybe in three or six months you’ll like it better. Maybe after a year it will be your new favorite!
What Beers Should I Age?
When it comes to the cellar, not all beers are created equal. Apart from bottle conditioned beer, some will benefit from a few months of rest, some for a Van Winkle-esque few years, and many will only become unbalanced and muddied. KegWorks, in their Beer Cellaring Basics article, suggests only aging beers higher than 8%ABV. The higher alcohol beers that may have a sharp or “hot” note while fresh will often smooth out considerably with some age, allowing you to taste the more subtle flavors that the alcohol was masking.
Malt = Good, Hops = Bad
The other key guideline to selecting beers to put down, generally maltier and darker beers will develop with age well. The roasty and complex malt characters becoming more assertive. Hop-heavy beers on the other hand are best fresh. This seems counter intuitive since hops are used as a preservative in beer, but the complex flavors that we look for in IPAs and the like will fade in a matter of weeks or months.
As anyone who’s had a past-its-prime Double IPA can tell you, a hoppy beer that has lost much of its hoppy punch is not only unbalanced, it can be near undrinkable. As a hop-foward beer ages the first thing to go is the wonderful hop aroma. The complex hop flavor will next begin to lose its definition before fading into the background all together. Age a hoppy beer long enough and the bitter isomerized alpha acids will oxidize, and the beer will actually lose much of its bitterness. What you are left with is a stale, sweet, and pale malt beverage.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and if an IPA is formulated with aging in mind it can be improved with age. The Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA is a classic example of a hoppy beer that does well with a few months or years on it. Experimentation is the name of the game: find out what the beers you love taste like in 6 months or a year.
The Best Candidates for The Cellar:
High-ABV bottle-conditioned malty beers are be the prime candidates, and the obvious choice would be Belgian Abby and Strong Ales. These are classic cellar-dwellers. Imperial Stouts and Barley Wines are the other most common choices for aging. Sour beers, because of their bacterial inoculations, are another style that would probably age well, as would a barrel-aged beer as the congeners from the wood will continue to develop the beer’s flavor.
Generally, fresh beer is the best beer, but you should experiment to see how things change and develop.
How Should I Store My Beers?
Beer has three main enemies throughout its life: oxygen is the worst of the bad-guys, and his henchmen light and heat will help speed a beer’s flavor down the drain. Oxidation will stale the beer and introduce sherry-like flavors at first that can quickly become an overwhelming “wet cardboard” taste. Oxidation occurs quicker when a beer is warmer, so keeping a beer cool is key. Light of course, the UV variety, will react with the hop compound in the beer to produce sulfur compounds that result in the distinct twang of skunk.
Find a Place to Call Your Cellar
The “cellar” should be chosen to minimize all of these factors:
- Unlike wine, store beers upright. This minimizes the amount of liquid in contact with the gas present in the headspace of the bottle and will slow down the process of oxidation.
- Store beer in the dark. Sunlight and fluorescent lights are full of radiation that will destroy a beer. Brown bottles are better than green or (gasp) clear bottles, but the beer inside can still be effected if exposed to enough light for long enough.
- Store beer in a cool place. Generally 50-55 degrees is the optimal temperature. Any cooler than that and the actions within the beer will slow and the “aging” will occur more slowly, and any warmer than that and the beer is at an increased risk of oxidation.
- Don’t let the temperature fluctuate. Big swings of 10 or more degrees each way will wreck havoc on the chemical processes in the liquid and should be avoided.
Now we don’t all have the luxury of a subterranean earthen cellar to lay down our precious bottle in, especially living in LA. Hell, few of us have the luxury of a spare closet to devote to beer. But closets turn out to be our best option. A closet situated near the center of your home is best as these have the smallest temperature fluctuations. Even then, unless you are using climate control 24 hours a day over the summer, there will be some pretty big swings in temperature. Just make do the best you can, and think about your sleeping beauties as an experiment and not an investment. Expect undrinkable results and hopefully be happily surprised.
As for the details of storage, I like to keep a couple of cardboard boxes collected from bottle shops to store my meager cellared beers. They are free, light-proof, and you can stack them and write on them. You could go for something more snazzy, like dedicated shelving or even the Brewbicle.
It seems a little nerdy, and well, it is. But then you are a beer-nerd or else you wouldn’t be bothering to store beer for months or years before you drink it. Embrace the nerd and start a cellaring notebook. Keep the details on what beers you add to the cellar, when you laid them down, what they tasted like fresh, and how they change over time. Not only will this help you keep an inventory of what is in all those unmarked boxes, but it will become a valuable tool for selecting new beers to lay-down each year. Moleskine even makes a dedicated Beer Journal.
How Long Should I Let My Beer Sleep?
Years? Months? There isn’t an easy, or a wrong, answer. Renowned beer scholar Bill Sysak says:
Beers begin to change the day they come out of the tank. IPAs show signs of deterioration within a few weeks. Cellarable beer will have noticeable changes as early as three months and definitely within six. If you have the beer budget, I recommend you purchase enough of a particular beer to try every three months for two to three years. If you notice the beer has peaked, it’s time to refrigerate and enjoy them as soon as possible.
This focus on experimentation is the key. Don’t let your cellar become a source of stress, that just defeats the whole purpose of drinking and enjoying a fine ale!
It’s Time, How Should I Drink My Aged Beer?
Most of the styles that cellar well should also be served at cellar temperature (50-55°F). You can get away with a slight chill so that you can really experience the flavors blossoming as the beer warms up, but keep your aged bottles out of the fridge! Share your aged bottles with your closest friends, and use smaller pours into snifters to really savor the aromas and flavors.
Apart from that, consider a vertical tasting with a few different “vintages,” or at least a fresh bottle next-to the aged bottle. This is especially important when just starting out as it is the easiest way to learn how time is effecting your beer. Use your cellar note-book when you are tasting!
Aged Beer Sounds Good, But What If I Don’t Like It?
If you are curious about trying aged beers, but you don’t have the inclination or patience to set-up your own mini cellar you are not totally out of luck. Some of the better bars and taverns will have some reserve bottles available for purchase, just be prepared to pay for the time that they put into aging those beers. Blue Palms Brewhouse is one example in LA that has some aged beers on their extensive bottle-list. Another good method is going to local events that feature vertical tastings; recently Sunset Beer Co hosted a vertical tasting of Stone’s Double Bastard across several years. Additionally, keep an eye out for older “forgotten” bottles at your local bottle shop. You never know what you might find covered in dust and left for months or years! Failing that, you can always turn to the internet and beer trades to find some already-aged bottles.
That Was Fascinating, Tell Me More!
There are a lot of articles on aging beer out there, here is a short list of some that we like (and used in the writing of this piece):
- The Dogfish Head Blogfish: 5 Things You Should Know About Aging Beer
- CTbites: Beer Talk: The Basics of Aging Beer
- Imbibe Magazine: Time in a Bottle
- KegWorks How-To Center: Beer Cellaring Basics: A Guide to Aging
- Beer Sensory Science: The Chemistry of Beer Aging – A Critical Review
- Draft Magazine: Five Cellaring Myths
- Draft Magazine: Cellaring: Technique (w/ Stone’s Mitch Steele)
Try It, You Might Like It
Aging beer is becoming more common and popular, and many breweries are releasing beers that are ment to be aged (see Stone’s Vertical Epic series). What are your thoughts on setting-up a beer cellar? Is it something you’re interested to try or will you just stick to fresh beers?