Sunday, April 15, 2012

Aging Your Beer: a quick primer

Aging a beer? What is this, fine wine?

Actually, yes. You can stick some beers in a cellar just as you would a fine wine and years later end up with a heady, complex brew. Not only can you do it, it can often result in an amazing beer better than anything you can buy off the shelf. Cellaring beer can be a fun hobby that results in truly mind-blowing vintage beers.

Of course, it doesn't apply to all beers. In fact, it doesn't apply to most beers. The vast majority of beers will only get worse over time.

There are a few general rules of thumb in choosing good candidates for aging, though. Keep in mind that there are exceptions (there are always exceptions!), but these are good basics to start with:



The beer should have high alcohol content, at minimum 8% ABV or above, even better if it's 10% or above. That Dogfish Head World Wide Stout? EXCELLENT candidate.

Exceptions: lambic styles, especially gueuze and many sour beers, can age wonderfully despite these styles tending to be low in alcohol.


Avoid hoppy beers like IPAs and pale ales. The best candidates tend to be malty and/or sweeter beers like barleywine ales, imperial stouts, and big Belgian darks.

Exceptions: Let's get it out there right up from and say that Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA is not an IPA. Despite what Dogfish says, IPA is a marketing term in this case; this beer is a strong ale, which is to say it defies category. And you can for SURE age this beer. When fresh it's full of hops, but with years in the cellar it will develop the complex malts of a big barleywine. Other hoppy high-alcohol beers like Bigfoot also age wonderfully. In fact, Bigfoot is the DEFINITIVE American beer for aging.


Being bottle-conditioned means the beer was re-fermented inside the bottle, i.e. has active yeast inside the bottle. Bottle conditioning means a beer has active yeast in it when bottled, which means that yeast will keep working to change the beer over time. The vast majority of beers are NOT. A rare mass-market beer that is bottle-conditioned is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In general, however, most beers are not bottle-conditioned. A good clue that a beer is bottle-conditioned is a layer of sediment at the bottom. (It's harmless.)

Exceptions: Some people think bottle-conditioning is a prerequisite for aging since you need active yeast to keep changing the beer. FALSE. A beer need not be bottle-conditioned to benefit from cellaring. Changes in beer occur for many reasons. A trait that usually isn't desirable, for instance, oxidation, can be mature some beers in positive ways whether or not they have active yeast upon bottling. This can be a desirable trait in some beers, most notably barleywines.



Temperature is not as important as some say provided your temperature is consistent (in my opinion, though I'll note that some will debate this). The general consensus is that you want to store your beers at a steady cellar temperature, which is about 50-55 degrees F. That's a good rule of thumb to live by. However, not all of us have the luxury of cellar storage. In my experience, anything from cellar temperature to room temperature (up to 70 degrees F) is probably okay, just avoid big swings in temperature. "Steady" is the key work. Keep it consistent. DON'T store beer for the long term in the refrigerator. If your regular temperature is fridge temp or below (40 degrees F), that's too low. Your beer won't mature in the desired way, and it will do so slowly. If it's higher than "room temperature" (about 70 degrees F) by a good margin, say, up to 75+, that's too high. A cool basement is PERFECT. A cool closet is acceptable. I have stored many beers at room temperature only to have, five years later, an amazing frickin' beer experience.

Exceptions: None! Cellar temp if you can, room temp if you can't. But see below.

Note: The higher your storage temp, the quicker you should drink your beer. Cool temperatures slow down the aging process. If five years is ideal for a barleywine (it often is, in my experience), you might drink it in 3-4 years at room temp, and 7-8 years at fridge temp.


Avoid light at all costs! This is more important than temperature. Light sucks. Keep the beer in a dark place, always. Light is bad for beer. It is why beer skunks. Despite misconceptions, it's the ONLY reason why. (Thank you, science.) If the only place you have to store your beer for the long-term is a cupboard, that's okay. The beer is away from light. If it's an open bookshelf, that's not. Light is bad.

Exceptions: None! Light sucks for beer.


The length of time to store your awesome brew really depends on the beer. The only way to know for sure is to experiment and read reviews and such. In my experience, imperial stouts are often great after a year to two, Belgian darks (quads, dubbels, etc) about two to three years, and my own preference for barleywines is at least three years, peaking in the 4-6 range. But tastes differ and your mileage may vary.

Some beers can go for much, much longer. Many barleywines can go for well over a decade and still be delicious. (I've had barleywines that were in the 12- to 14-year range and they were lovely.) A variation on the Belgian lambic style called gueuze can be aged for decades. I've seen people say they've enjoyed bottles of gueuze that were a half-century old.

Exceptions: None. This is all a matter of taste. All you can do is experiment and see what you like.



Some beers are anomalies. Samuel Adams Imperial White is one of them. Witbiers are usually not considered good candidates for aging. This one happens to be an "imperial" witbier, which is to say it's got a jacked up alcohol content. It's also pretty bad when fresh. Aged six months, however, it's pretty decent, a year to 18 months it's really frickin' nice and well worth drinking, and two years plus? Don't know. I still have two aging bottles to open.

Some people age beers that are totally contrary to aging wisdom. Sierra Nevada Celebration, for instance. This is a freshly-hopped ale that by all rights should NOT age well. Many people do it, anyway. Personally I think they're nuts, but if folks enjoy it more power to them. So the exceptions are, "if you age it and it tastes good, age it."


The best idea if you want to age something is to get at least two bottles, one to drink fresh and one to drink with some age. Drink it, dig it, stash the other. That will help you see the kind of changes a beer can undergo with time. I try to do this with all beers I age, drinking at least one fresh and stashing others, but some beers are damn expensive, so I only get one. If I can't get two, I drink the beer fresh ... unless it's a barleywine. That's a style I learned long ago I only enjoy aged at least a few years.


Really, open your vintage beers when you're SOBER, not at the end of the night after many drinks! It's a complete waste if you open them when you're blasted and can't fully appreciate how awesome they are. Savor these beers for early in the night when you can actually appreciate them.


In my limited experience with laying down coffee and/or chocolate beers, they peak at around 6-9 months, a year for high gravity beers like Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti, and then level off or go downhill. I'm sure there are some that cellar great, but generally I wouldn't go too long with them. Both coffee and chocolate fade with time.



Beer is fun. Age some beer. Drink it. Have fun.

Doesn't get much simpler than that.

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