Coors has their cold activated can and Budweiser has their born on date. But forget the snow capped, blue mountains, scantily clad women or the heavy draft horses from Scotland; and open your mind to barley wines, vintage beers, imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales and lambics. Like the most dedicated oenophile, many beer drinkers see great value in storing their beers away, only to appreciate them months, or even years later. The Belgians have been aging beer for years, but storing ales or stouts away like fine wine is relatively new to the American palate.
So, what happens in the aging process? Hops break down over time and can make a perfectly good beer taste like monkey dung. Exposure to light and fluctuating temperatures invite premature spoilage, which then breaks down a chemical in the hops into a pungent skunk odor. Drinking a can of Stella left in the closet for a year isn’t unlike drinking surface runoff - neither is encouraged. But with certain beers, time is meant to mellow out the rough edges, let the flavors evolve and ultimately produce a delicious transformation. As the beers gently oxidize, reactions between ethanol and organic compounds soften the bitterness, as the alcohol flavor fades. More often than not, aging beer takes the edge off carbonation and hops, rounds out sharp corners, deepens flavors and turns it into an enjoyable, smooth sipper. The fruit & earthy flavors are pronounced as the taste evolves from brash to refined. Some of course, may prefer the fresher and hoppier beers, and aging a beer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always going to be better.
If you’re still scowling at the idea of storing your beers in a dark, not-so-pleasant smelling basement for the yeast to add a new level of complexity; just consider how gourmet vinegars, some cheeses, sourdough bread or yogurt are all influenced by aging bacteria and appreciated by acquired tastes.
Certain types of beers develop these desirable flavors over time. Much like wine, aged beer will eventually peak and slowly stop aging. Look for a high alcohol content (over 7% is a good rule of thumb), bottle-conditioned beers with yeast in the bottle, barley wines, lambics, barrel-aged, sour beers and winter ales. Bottle-conditioned beers still have metabolically active yeast in it after the bottling process is complete. They are either unfiltered, so the final conditioning of the beer takes place in the bottle, or filtered and then reseeded with yeast so that an additional fermentation may take place. This not-so-sterile filtering usually means beers that are corked.
Take barley wine. Since it is made of grain, not fruit, it is still considered an ale or beer. Along with being high in alcohol content, barley wines are usually quite hoppy, which causes them to be a bit bitter. They are meant to be aged.
Here are just several good examples:
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2007
Le Merle from North Coast
Avery 14th Anniversary Ale
Avery 2006 Samuels Ale
Hair of the Dog Adam
Chimay Grande Reserve ‘06
Ommegang Three Philosophers '07
Ommegang Ommegeddon '07
Green Flash Barleywine '07
Allagash Victor and Four
Green Flash Trippel
Marin Tripel Dipsea
Deschutes The Abyss
Dogfish’s Burton Buton
Dogfish Palo Santo Marron
Thomas Hardy's Ale
The Norwegians have a microbrewery called Nøgne Ø, which are dedicated to making top-fermented and bottle conditioned beers. Try their Porter, which has 30 IBU and 7% ABV. If you want to try a few aged beers before experimenting, many good American beer bars now carry a few. The Map Room in Chicago, Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., Falling Rock Taphouse in Denver, Max's on Broadway in Baltimore and the Toronado in San Francisco usually have more than a handful.
So, where do you start? Patience, will-power and the right conditions are material in producing wonderfully aged beer.
1. Buy at least two of each beer you intend to store. The good news is that you get to drink one of them immediately! You’ll want to compare the taste of the fresh beer, to the aged beer. Take notes, if you’re interested in noting the comparison later.
2. Keep in cool conditions and away from light (the same conditions for storing wine). Any yeast left in the bottle will continue to ferment in the bottle. Heat and light both will wreak havoc on your delicate stash of brews, so store them in a basement, cellar or similar dark and cool area. Beer benefits from cool constant temperatures, usually around 50-55 degrees F. Cold temperatures abate changes to beer during aging . Higher temperatures will risk shortening the lifespan of your beer. Strong beers, such as barleywines, dark ales and triples, undergo their optimal aging at room temperature (55-60F). Most standard ales, like bitters, IPAs, dobbelbocks, lambics and stouts, should be stored at cellar temperature (50-55F). As a rule of thumb, the higher alcohol content, the higher temperature and lower alcohol, the lower temperature.
3. Unlike storing wine, most agree that beer should be stored upright. There’s some debate surrounding this, but most breweries and aficionados will agree that the beer will benefit from vertical storage. Upright storage reduces the amount of surface area that is exposed, thus slowing the oxidation of the beer. Many of the best beers for aging contain yeast in the bottle. If the bottle is stored horizontally, the yeast and other sediment will settle to the side of the bottle. It’s less likely to end up in your glass, if stored upright.
Extended storage of a beer on its side can create a yeast ring inside the bottle, which will not settle. And in case you needed yet another reason to store your beer upright – beer with lengthy exposure to the cork can impart cork flavors within the beer, that weren’t meant to be there. The alcohol in beer draws out moldy character of the cork and in fact can taint the beer. You’re already experimenting enough with the yeast, you don’t really want cork fungal bacteria taking up residence, as well.
Also check out this great site dedicated to aging beer: The Brew Basement.
So - unlike some of your beers – don’t be left in the dark. Beer isn’t just for chugging anymore! Buy some beers. Store them away. Discover them later. Best of all, enjoy what you find.