By Jay Brooks
Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 at 7:00 am in On Beer.
If you read my most recent newspaper column on building a beer cellar, below is one of my earlier columns from 2010 about what beers work well for aging. Once you’ve built your beer cellar, here are some tips for choosing beers to fill up your new cellar.
Ninety-nine percent of the world’s beer is brewed to be enjoyed as soon as possible after it’s bottled, canned or kegged. There’s no doubt that fresh beer is best … but then there’s that remaining one percent that proves the exception to the rule. Nobody’s sure exactly sure how many beers are ripe for aging, but most experts agree there aren’t very many.
But it begs the question; if most beers are best fresh, why age beer at all? Like vintage wines and spirits, beers that have been stored properly for a period of time mature into amazingly complex beverages with taste profiles that cannot be achieved any other way. Older beer becomes drier, more vinous and less sweet. It also develops rounder, less sharp or harsh flavors, becoming refined, even elegant.
As a general rule, ales work best, and beers over 8% a.b.v. are especially good candidates for aging. The stronger the beer, the longer it can be aged without becoming undrinkable and losing all its positive flavor components. The exception to that rule is sour beers. Many lower alcohol sour beers, like lambics, benefit greatly from aging. Also, unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned beers, which still have live yeast in them, will continue to improve with age. Malty beer likewise tends to hold up better than hoppy beers, which seems counter-intuitive since hops were originally added to beer as a preservative. But while hops will keep a beer fresher than without them, they do start to break down and lose their bite after a few short months.
Some of the most ideal beer styles for aging include Belgian-style dubbels (can be aged 1-3 years), tripels (1-4 years), Belgian strong dark ales (2-10 years), Imperial styles (roughly 1-6 years), barley wines and imperial stouts (2-20 years) and the extremely strong ales, like Samuel Adams Utopias (up to 100 years). Also, many barrel-aged beers, spicy beers and winter ales can be aged.
How to Store and Age Beer
Heat and light are the enemies of beer, so the place you store your beer should be cool and dark. Perhaps more importantly, it should not be subject to temperature fluctuations but maintain a constant 55 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. That’s why a cellar is better than a refrigerator. Cooler will work, too, but never warmer. For every additional ten degrees, beer will spoil twice as fast. Unlike wine, bottles should be stored upright to reduce the surface area of oxygen and slow oxidation.
Perhaps the best, and certainly the most fun, reason to age beer is to do a vertical tasting to see first hand what time does to beer. Many big beers do a new version each year and vintage date the label or crown. Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, for example, uses a different crown (or bottle cap) with the year clearly printed on them. That allows you to buy a six-pack each year, and put a few away for aging. In a few short years, you can have a world class vertical tasting, opening the newest first and the oldest last.
In the end, thirst is probably the biggest hurdle to aging beer. That’s why I also recommend putting your cellar out of sight, if possible. That will keep you from opening all your bottles too soon. Having a beer cellar really is an endeavor where patience truly is its own reward.