2002 bottle of Dogfish Head World Wide Stout with 23% ABV.
Generally speaking, high-alcohol beers, preferably above 8 percent ABV, seem to do best. That said, some lower-ABV beers age just as gracefully, such as some smoked beers, strong saisons, farmhouse ales, lambics and a variety of sour ales.
Speaking of sour ales, many of them, especially lambics and those fermented with Brettanomyces yeast and bacteria (such as lactobacillus and pediococcus), have probably already aged for many years by the brewer/blender, so they are ripe for drinking now. Aging them longer definitely won’t hurt, but they may or may not improve over additional years.
Similarly, many barrel-aged beers have already spent months or years maturing, so when they’re finally released in bottles, they’re usually at their prime and ready to drink. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be aged further in the bottle.
Bottle-conditioned beers are prime candidates for aging. The unfiltered yeast remaining in suspension (which is sometimes added at bottling) will continue to consume sugars and slowly change the flavor profile of the beer over time.
Some beers brewed with smoked malt age wonderfully. Alaskan Smoked Porter is a classic example. It’s only 6.5 percent ABV (older versions had even less alcohol), but over time it morphs into a deeply complex beer, sometimes producing rich, umami notes of bacon.
Some of my favorite beers to age are not the most expensive or most-elusive beers out there. I love to age Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine Style Ale, North Coast Old Stock Ale and a variety of Hair of the Dog beers – all of which are fairly easy to find and relatively inexpensive.
HOW LONG TO AGE BEER?
Every beer is different, and different beers hit their primes at different times. They all improve to a point – whether over the course of months or decades – and then slowly begin to decline. In general, many beers show drastic changes after just a year or two, and some continue to improve for 10 or more years. Occasionally, a super old bottle will surface that still tastes good, such as the extreme case of this 145-year-old barleywine.
Even though there are many accepted guidelines for aging beer, there are no steadfast rules. People always say, “Never age IPAs,” for example, but Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA ages incredibly well. Just know that it will be far different from a fresh version.
Regardless of what you decide to put in your cellar (or closet), it’s always best to age multiple bottles of the same beer so that you can sample one on occasion to see how it’s evolving. As soon as it begins to head south, it’s time to call some friends and drink up the entire stock!
If you save enough bottles of a particular beer, and continue to collect bottles of it each year, it’s fun to host a vertical tasting party. This is when you and your friends sample vintages of the same beer from different years – all in one session. This will really give you a chance to see how the beer has changed over the years. Typically, the lineup is tasted from youngest to oldest.
DON’T SAVE THAT ONE ‘SPECIAL’ BEER FOR THE ‘PERFECT’ TIME
Try not to get too hung up on saving that one special beer for that “special occasion” that may or may not come. Remember that life is short, and beer is meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes just opening a special beer makes the here and now a “special occasion.”
I’m currently sitting on some rare beers going back to the early 2000s. All the other beers in my fridge tend to keep me distracted, but if I’m in the mood for something in my cellar, or if I have a visitor that’s interested in trying one or two of them, I won’t hesitate to pop some tops.
Read more: 8 tips for cellaring beer