To age, or not to age?
This temporal variation of a timeless existential question is one that’s being asked with growing frequency in the craft beer world.But even if cellaring beer has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation of late, it’s still relative terra incognita for the craft beer community writ large.
Beer and Time. To age, or not to age? You’d be forgiven for considering the question absurd, for we’ve been conditioned to think that old beer is bad beer. And in most cases, beer doesn’t fight a winning battle with time.
That said, not all beers are brewed equally – and I don’t mean this in a normative sense. Many beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. But some beers are destined for the longue durée: in plain English, the cellar.
Before we descend too many steps into the cobwebbed darkness, let me state categorically that there’s no reason why a beer shouldn’t be consumed fresh, even if it’s a candidate for aging. A bottle of just-released Boulevard Saison-Brett is every bit as good as one that has battled with the spiders in your cellar for a year or more. And time will transform the perfectly drinkable Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barley wines destined to hit the shelves in the coming months into something all together different. Therein lies the fun of experimenting. But don’t take my word for it. Try for yourself!
What follows are tips and basic rules of thumb to get you started. Even if you don’t have the most ideal conditions, start by laying down a few age-worthy beers for six months to a year.
- Friends and foes.
Beer prefers cool, dark places. Light –– especially sunlight –– will skunk your beer in no time. Heat isn’t kind to beer either. Prolonged periods of storage north of 70F (21C) will accelerate oxidation, and leave your beer resembling cardboard. You might already be acquainted with the stale taste of those unfortunate yet otherwise stellar Central European beers that have arrived in North American bars and bottle shops in tatters.
If you’re planning on getting serious about long-term cellaring, temperature control is key. It can mean the difference between a stellar imperial stout five years down the road, or a long, melancholy walk to the sink to pour it all down the drain. Not only does beer like darkness and coolness, it’s also a bit like Goldilocks –– not too hot, not too cold, and happiest at a constant temperature between about 50F (10C) and 60F (15C). If your conditions are too warm, bacteria that are less active at lower temperatures come out to play. What’s more, the yeast that contribute to that slow, magical transformation in bottle-conditioned beers won’t live to tell about their journey at high temperatures. Too cold, and all these gradual changes are slowed down to a snail’s pace, or arrested altogether. (Better too cold than too warm, though.)
Actual cellars or basements are best, should you have access to a cellar or basement. Your fridge will work in a pinch. And if you have a wine fridge, you’re set. That’s where I hide away all my gueuzes, Belgian quads, barley wines, imperial stouts barrel-aged or otherwise, and any other beers boasting a best-before date years from now.
Cellaring beer involves a certain amount of experimentation, but you can start off on the right track with styles like barley wines, imperial stouts, Baltic porters, Scotch ales, Belgian quads, barrel-aged beers, and Doppelbocks like Samichlaus. You may have noticed a pattern here. These beers usually clock in well above 7% ABV, with the high amount of alcohol acting as a preservative. These styles also typically contain plenty of malt, leaving enough residual sugar for the yeast to slowly convert into caramel, chocolate, or dark fruit flavours –– flavours that meld well with oxidative notes such as nuts and sherry.
The malt plus high ABV equation isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Highly acidic beers and/or those fermented with wild yeast strains also tend to develop in pleasantly surprising ways over the long haul. Lambics, gueuzes, Flemish reds (the vintage-dated Rodenbach is stellar), and many American sours and Brett beers are worth the wait. Saisons are finicky, but I’ve had great luck with higher-ABV offerings such as those from Funkwerks in Fort Collins, and have found that both batches of high-ABV saison I brewed had mellowed and evolved more complex tropical fruit notes by the time they had hit one year.
- Good Housekeeping.
Get a sense of which beers do well within certain windows of time. Some beers you can deep-six and forget about; others may improve with some age, but decline rapidly after a certain point. Keep track, because as your cellar grows, you will lose track. I note down the following:
- Name of beer and brewery.
- Vintage date, if any.
- Date purchased.
- Place purchased. (At the brewery? At a bottle shop? This may affect your decision about how long you’d like to age a beer. Unless you know the folks at your bottle shop well, you may not have the best sense of how the bottles have been handled before arriving on a particular shelf.)
- Number of bottles purchased.
- Style. (Some styles hold up better than others.)
- Ballpark estimate of the “best before” date, unless indicated on the label. (Low-ball this one: better to drink too early than too late).
- Tasting notes –– the fun part! (In addition to the usual tasting notes, I add details such as date consumed, how well the beer held up, speculations on whether the beer could have aged longer, and the like.)
- Go Vertical.
Arranging a vertical tasting is an excellent way to see how beers evolve. A vertical tasting is comprised of a selection of the same beer or wine but from different vintages –– say, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Not all beers are released with vintage dates, but an increasing number are. If you’re lucky, your bottle shop might offer verticals of the same beer for a reasonable price. If not, simply seek out some cellar-worthy beer. Widely available and relatively inexpensive beers like North Coast’s Old Stock Ale or Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot make excellent building blocks for your future vertical tastings. Lay down about three bottles of the same beer per year and then invite some regular drinking compadres over for a treat a few years hence. Open up three or four different vintages, starting with the most recent vintage and working your way back. Doing this only once in your life will drive home how much of a difference time can make.
- You Never Step in the Same River Twice.
Even if the vast majority of the biochemical reactions have long since taken place before the beer ends up in the bottle, beer components like oxygen, proteins, tannins, and esters continue their pas-de-deux well into the wee hours of the ensuing months and years.
*Bitterness mellows, and the jagged edges of alcoholic heat become more rounded.
*Oxidized characteristics start to emerge. Some of these enhance the beer, while others indicate that the beer may be becoming more fit for malt vinegar. A few descriptors for your tasting notes: straw, leather, sherry, nuts, port-like, earthy, woody. In some Belgian sours, you might even notice beguiling notes of high-end balsamic vinegar.
*Hop character fades, while malt notes intensify, especially in melanoidin-rich beers like Scotch ales or barleywines.
*Sweetness can also become more pronounced –– due, in no small part, to the decrease in hop intensity. Expect more dark honey and toffee.
*Stale, vinegar, cardboard. Damn. If any of these characteristics predominate, your gamble didn’t pay off, or you left the beer in the cellar for too long.
The Faustian Bargain.
Cellaring is a gamble. You’ll have some sublime tasting experiences, but be prepared for the occasional disappointment of diabolical proportions. This is not an exact science, and most of us are still learning which styles benefit from some age, and which don’t. But that’s the fun of it.
As an idea, aging beer has barely hit adolescence. As a body of knowledge, it’s still very much a collaborative project. I’ve shared some pointers above, and have listed Tempest articles below that touch upon aging beer. Do you have experiences with cellaring beer as well? Share them in the comments!
Andy Sparhawk, “Cellaring Craft Beer,” Craft Beer (August 2015).
Alistair Bland, “Vintage Beer?” The Salt, NPR (January 2015).
All images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.