Most beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. Some, however, actually improve with age, similar to some wines.
Various ingredients help to preserve beer and/or enhance its flavor over time, including hops, malt, alcohol, yeast, bacteria (i.e., lactobacillus and pediococcus), smoked malts and lactic acid.
Different beers – and even different vintages of the same beer – age differently. Over time, they peak in flavor and then slowly begin to degrade. Depending on the beer, that “peak” can be anywhere from months to decades.
WHY AGE BEER?
Think of aging beer like investing in the stock market. It’s a gamble, but if you choose the right stocks (i.e., beers), and you give them enough time, your patience should be rewarded.
Generally speaking, over time, bitterness will mellow and hop aromatics will fade. Biting alcohol will soften. Malt flavors will meld and become more complex, as they develop and/or highlight new flavors, such as molasses, sherry, dark fruits, chocolate and bread. Sweetness can surface and become more prominent. Some beers even develop vinous, wine-like qualities.
Undeniably, oxygen affects flavor. Some oxidative properties can be positive, producing notes of sherry, toffee and even honey. But if a beer becomes too oxidized over time, it can produce stale off-flavors of diapers, wet paper or cardboard. Curiously, some people are more sensitive than others to oxidized notes in beer. What might offend one person might be barely discernable to another.
HOW & WHERE TO STORE BEER?
Unlike wine, which is often stored on its side to keep the cork from drying out, most beer should be stored upright so that the sediment settles to the bottom.
Of course, many lambics are stored on their side, which causes the sediment to settle along the side of the bottle.
Stacked bottles of Cantillon resting at the brewery in Brussels, Belgium.
This is why, traditionally, they’re served in lambic baskets, which keeps the sediment from being roused each time the beer is poured.
Traditional wicker lambic basket.
Custom-made wooden lambic basket.
It’s best to age beer in the dark. UV sunlight and house lights can cause some beers to become skunky over time.
If possible, a low-humidity environment is best. If the air is too dry, corks can dry out. If the air is too humid, mold can grow. Humidity around 60 percent is recommended.
Ideally, temperatures should range between 50 and 60 degrees, without fluctuating too much. Depending on the beer and your intentions, some beers can be aged at refrigerator temps (i.e., 35 to 40 degrees) while some beers age just fine in the high 60s. At lower temperatures the aging process will slow. At higher temperatures the aging process will speed up, possibly creating some undesirable flavors and/or over-carbonated bottle bombs.
Another suggestion: Try not to move or agitate your beer while it’s resting.
I store my beer in a defunct ice chest in my basement, which fluctuates between 58 and 68 degrees all year long, and it seems to work just fine.
RECOMMENDED BEERS TO AGE
Many styles of beer begin to degrade within a short period time, especially India pale ales. There are, however, many other styles that are great contenders for aging. Barleywines, imperial stouts, strong ales, Belgian quadrupels, old ales and stock ales all tend to not only hold up well, but they usually improve as they get older.
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.