Beer Department: How to Age BeerBack to feed
As a general rule, the overwhelming majority of beer should be consumed fresh and all beer is packaged tasting the way the brewer intended it to taste. However, some beers possess characteristics that will allow them to develop interesting and new flavors over time, given the correct storage conditions. Devoting age-worthy beers to a cellar (whether makeshift or elaborate) allows you, the drinker, to take part in the creation of the finished product because these age-worthy beers will often taste drastically different after months or years developing in a cellar. To better understand the art of aging beer, let’s dive right in!
First, let’s discuss the conditions for aging beer. Beer should be aged in a cool, dark place. An actual basement cellar or a fancy wine fridge is best, but even a cool dark closet will do the trick. What’s important here is that the beer is kept at a consistent temperature, as close to 60 degrees Fahrenheit as possible, and that its kept dark to prevent degradation over time from light. You also need to avoid humidity as moisture in the air will encourage mold and mildew to develop that will destroy the beer. Unlike aging wine, I strongly encourage you to age your beer standing up rather than on its side because many age-worthy beers are bottle conditioned and laying them on their side will disturb the intended yeast to surface ratio in the beer and this may result in unpleasant secondary fermentation flavors or even bottle explosions from excess carbon dioxide build up inside the bottle.
Now onto the really important question — what beers are worth aging? That’s a tough question to answer succinctly, but I’ll do my best. The short answer is that age-worthy beers can be roughly divided into two categories — strong beers and wild beers. Strong beers, with an alcohol by volume of 8% or greater, will generally have enough malt character to stand up to the sands of time. Barrel aging can also extend the lifespan of beer by adding tannin structure and additional layers of flavor that will change over time.
Wild beers, by contrast, are often not especially strong but are great cellaring candidates nonetheless. Wild beers are sour, funky, earthy beers like lambics, gueuzes, and American wild ales that have been fermented by one or more wild yeasts and bacteria like Brettanomyces and lactobacillus, respectively. These beers are typically bottle conditioned with these organisms and cellaring will slowly reveal more and more delicious fermentation flavor over time.
The one category of beer you should never age is IPA. IPAs and all their related substyles are extremely hop-forward and hops will quickly fade from any beer so these beers will quickly taste markedly off. Drink IPA as fresh as possible, ideally 3-6 months from packaging.
Some very age-worthy styles of beer include Belgian abbey or Trappist styles like dubbels, tripels, and quads, imperial stouts, barleywines, lambic, gueuze, and barrel-aged American Wild Ales (think Jester King, Jolly Pumpkin, Cascade, etc.). In selecting cellar-able beers, also remember that added flavors like coffee and vanilla will fade quickly. A two-year-old coffee stout won’t taste much like coffee at all so if you like those added flavors, drink it fresh! Be sure to buy at least two of any beer you’re planning to age — one to drink fresh so you have a frame of reference and one to age. There are even apps out there to help you record tasting notes so you can compare and contrast down the road.
The last bit of advice I can offer is really more of a caveat. Remember that aging beer is an art, not a science. It isn’t perfect. Just like with aging wine, sometimes you might open a beer too early and find that it really hasn’t changed that much. Other times, you may sit on a beer too long and discover that it has changed for the worse and is well past its prime. That’s all part of the fun — seeing firsthand how time changes beer. Some of the most rewarding beer-drinking experiences I’ve ever had have been drinking aged beer. I’ve had 10-year-old imperial stouts and 15-year-old barleywines that were phenomenal, infinitely more complex than their fresh counterparts. To help get you started in the wild and wacky world of cellaring beer, my four picks in the 90+ and Expert categories this month are all extremely worthy aging candidates. Cheers and have fun!
-Eric Dunaway, Certified Cicerone®