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How to Choose a Beer to Age and Keep in Your Cellar
Lately I've been opening some old barrel aged imperial stouts, hoppy barley wines, and other strong beer that I've been cellaring for years. Some have been amazing while others sometimes fall flat. On a few occasions I've even had to pour my carefully aged beers down the drain because of how they turned out.
Aging beer is tricky business. It can be hard to tell if the $20 bottle that your brother gave to you for your birthday will be good with a few years on it. Is it worth it to even age the thing? How will you know for sure?
The thing about aging beer is that you will never truly know until you try, but here are some guidelines on picking which ones can or should be aged.
Guidelines to follow when picking beers
There are entire guides on how to properly age a beer in a cellar so I won't go over them in this article, but there are a few things that you need to know when you pick the right beer to put away.
- Look for beers with higher alcohol content
- Maltier beers tend to age better
- Some flavors (hops, coffee, and others) tend to fade with time
- Bottle conditioned beer tends to change more than non-bottle conditioned
One thing to remember is that oxidation and sunlight are enemies to beer. Temperature needs to be carefully controlled as well.
Beer with higher alcohol content tends to age better
Alcohol acts as a preservative and will keep your beer from spoiling. Beer with ABV that is too low might end up being a drain pour from infection, but I've had a few old bottles with low ABV that actually got better with a few years on them. Don't be afraid to experiment when it comes to aging beer.
Generally the rule of thumb is to go with something 8% or above. Lactic acid in sour beers can also act as a preservative and you can even age beer that is around 5% to 6% ABV.
Some styles with high alcohol by volume that can be interesting to age:
- Imperial Stouts
- Barley Wines
- Scotch Ales / Wee Heavy
- Old Stock Ales / Old Ales
- Belgian Tripel
- Belgian Quad
Maltier beers age well
Most people tend to think about imperial stouts and barley wines when it comes to aging, and for good reason. The two styles tend to have an alcoholic bite when they're fresh which mellows out over time. You can really enjoy the malty flavors present in those two styles after letting them mellow out.
What people don't realize is that the malt flavors themselves can change. Notes of fruitiness from can darken and end up tasting like dried stone fruits. Spicy notes can change into notes of vanilla or tobacco. Big Belgian beers like triples and quads are amazing for the flavors they bring with age.
Sours can age well too. Though they can sometimes be hit or miss, they tend to age interestingly. If brettanomyces was used to ferment the beer it could take years for the strain of yeast to really develop the flavors they're known for. You can end up with beer that tastes like what some like to call barnyard or wet horse blanket. In beers like this I notice more of a pickled olive flavor which I adore. Interestingly brettanomyces can create umami flavors which is a whole world to explore in itself.
The list above contains some maltier beers that will age well but all have higher ABV.
The following have lower ABV but the malts can change surprisingly if aged properly:
- Smoked Porters
- Strong Amber Ales
- Strong Brown Ales
- American Strong Ales (tend to have lots of hops these days)
Flavors that fade over time can allow new flavors to be perceived
Hops, Coffee, Vanilla (if added by vanilla beans) are all examples of some flavors that can fade as the beer ages. Some beer can be interesting enough once those flavors are gone. A few larger craft brewers are experimenting with some beers that are made specifically to be compared when aged and when fresh.
Stone Brewing's Enjoy After IPA is specifically interesting. You can taste the beer as it goes from being hoppy as it's fresh to funky and tart as it ages. Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA is a big boozy IPA that is meant to be cellared. Bottle Logic's Fundamental Observation is a Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla stout that can change as it gets a few years on it.
Some flavors may evolve out and mingle with the fading flavors in interesting ways. After a few years you may even enjoy your favorite beers in completely new ways.
There aren't any specific styles that have flavors that are supposed to fade. Brewers mostly design beers to be consumed fresh, with a few exceptions.
For example: Imperial IPAs have the alcohol and hops to withstand a few years in the cellar, but the flavors and aromas that define the style will fade.
Bottle conditioned beers are alive!
Most beer you see on the shelves has been pasteurized, but there are a few out there that you can find that still have living yeast in the bottle. The yeast will continue to consume residual sugars, oxygen, and other compounds on the beer which make it all evolve further.
If cellared properly, these beers can change a great deal. Sometimes they can even turn into something completely different from what they started as.
Some interesting bottle conditioned beers that you can try and age:
- Most Belgian Ales (Make sure the have higher ABV if they aren't sour or extra hoppy)
- Oud Bruins and Flanders Styles
- Wild Ales
Some of these are purposefully made to be aged. Especially American Wild ales. If you're feeling adventurous try the ones with brettanomyces. The flavors aren't for everyone, but they can sometimes produce some of the most lovely and interesting flavors that are completely unique to each bottle.
Tips for picking out beers to age
So what should you age that beer that your brother bought you? If it fits the guidelines above then it most certainly can be!
In my opinion beer is meant to be consumed and shared. If you have never had the beer before, it's best to drink it. Especially if you have access to getting another one you can drink it and see if you like it. If you like it you can buy another and age it.
My current strategy is to buy a beer fresh to see if I like it or find it interesting. If I like it I buy another one.
If there is a beer you would most certainly like to age, be sure to buy a few bottles from your favorite bottle shop. Open one fresh and take notes on it, then keep some to open over the years. If you can afford it I would recommend opening one every year to see how the flavor changes. Taking notes will be helpful for memory recall.
My local bottle shop also holds on to certain beers and ages them in the store so you can buy a bottle of the old stuff along with the new.
Keep in mind though that beer that you like fresh may not be as good as it is aged and vice versa, but you'll never know until you try it.
So experiment and find out which ones are most interesting to you!
If you already have a few cellared which ones are you aging? Which ones have you tried and enjoyed? Which ones are drain pours?
What styles do you think would be interesting with a few years on them?
Comment below! I would love to hear what you have to say!