Have you ever had a Bud or a Miller that was just a little bit too old? Perhaps someone left it in the garage during a party in the Spring, and you forgot all about it until well after Summer was over. You thought “Oh, what the heck” and cracked it open to see how it tastes.
If you’ve done something like this, then you are probably scarred for life. The thought of aging beer may sound like a one-way ticket to Skunksville. However, you may be surprised to know beers, like wine, can actually mature for months, years, and even decades. You might even find the occasional bottle that has a “Best After” date rather than a “Best Before” date. The idea of sitting on perfectly good beer for months or years may sound crazy to you at first, but your patience will be rewarded in the long run.
Here are some things to think about regarding aging beers.
The most important factor in aging your beer, also called “cellaring”, is the environment in which it will be aged. Throwing it in the garage or attic might be slightly more convenient in terms of space, but that kind of unstable environment is no good for storing beer.
The optimum environment for beer is a cool and dark area with minimal temperature fluctuations. Light and high temperatures will do terrible things to beer over time. The optimum temperature range for most beer aging is 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit (10-13 degrees Celsius). You want the bottles to remain relatively dry but have enough moisture in the air to prevent corked beers from drying out. You also want to store your beer upright as opposed to horizontally like wine, even with corked beer. More information on why you store beer upright can be found here.
Unless you have a cave system underneath your house, this environment isn’t necessarily readily available in most homes and apartments. Fortunately, there are other options available. A wine chiller with the racks taken out can make a great spot to age beer. An extra refrigerator with a thermostat may also suffice, but keep in mind that refrigerators are very dry and may cause corked beers to dry out over time. If you have a basement, underneath your stairs or in a in a dark corner may be adequate places to age your beers. If you don’t have a basement, a small closet may be a suitable option. However, the general consensus is that if you are not in optimum cellaring conditions, you should only age beers for 2-3 years max.
Organization may not be a big concern when you first start aging beers, but after having a large random collection of unidentifiable bottles laying around you’ll learn the importance of organization. How to you go about organizing beer? That is entirely up to you. You may want to organize by brewery, style, age, or other ways.
No matter which way you organize, you want to be able to easily identify what the beer is, who makes it, and how old it is.
If you have the space and can afford it, shelving units are some of the best and easiest ways to organize your beer. Just set up a few shelves, and stack the beers with the labels face-out.
You may also want to put dates on the beers that don’t have the “Bottled On” date printed on the label. I personally write the dates on strips of paper, then stick them on the neck of the bottles with clear Scotch tape. Dating bottles is important because it’s easy to lose track of the age of beers as your collection grows.
Now that you know a little bit about storage, you can start thinking about the important stuff; the beer. There are a lot of types of beer that are great candidates for aging, and many that are not recommended to be aged. There are a few general rules of thumb regarding what types of beers should be aged:
High Alcohol Beers
Alcohol is one heck of a preservative. High alcohol beers are usually prime candidates for aging because they will remain preserved while the flavors mature over time. Generally speaking, beers over 8-9% Alcohol By Volume (ABV) can be aged for up to a few years. Beers that are much higher, closer to 15% and up, can be aged for many, many years. Not all high ABV beers are good candidates for cellaring, but this is generally a good starting point.
Bottle Conditioned/Refermented Beers
Sometimes, brewers will leave a small amount of yeast when they bottle their brews, which carbonate the beers naturally. These beers are known as “Bottle Conditioned” or “Bottle Refermented” beers. You can tell if a beer is bottle conditioned by holding it up to light and seeing the little slurry of yeast at the bottom of the bottle. Don’t be alarmed if you see this, yeast are perfectly fine to drink – though, you may want to leave the last ounce or so in the bottle as you pour so you do not affect the flavor of your beer. Bottle conditioned beers have live yeast in them, which would love nothing more than you hang out and create subtle flavor changes to your beer over time. Not all bottle conditioned beers can be aged, but it is something to look for on your beer aging quest.
Lambics, and some other sour beers, contain a cocktail of natural yeasts and bacteria. Lambics go through what is called open fermentation or spontaneous fermentation, meaning only natural yeasts and bacteria from the surrounding area are used to ferment the beer. Lambics are considered one of the best beers to age, and many Lambic enthusiasts may argue that they will only get better with time. Generally low in alcohol, these sour beers rely on the living organisms that are contained in the bottle to keep them preserved. Their aging potential is extraordinary – I have read about lambics being aged for over 40 years and still tasting amazing! Other sour beers, such as American Wild Ales, contain many of the same bacteria and natural yeast as Lambics, and will continue to mature as the years go by.
Recommendations of Beers to Age
Not sure where to start? Here’s a few recommendations of beers to grab and age.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot
An American Barley Wine, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot is released once a year in January. The bottle has the year printed right on the cap, which is handy for organization. They sell this beer in six-packs, which gives you the opportunity to easy get a collection started. The beer is very hop-forward when it is fresh, and will mellow out and become much smoother over the years. This is perhaps one of the easiest beers to grab to start your cellar.
Stone Vertical Epic Beers
These beers from Stone are all designed to be aged and enjoyed “Sometime beyond 12.12.12”. The first release of this beer was 02.02.02, and there have been releases every year since (03.03.03, 04.04.04, and so on). Stone has recently released the 11.11.11 batch, which contains a Flanders yeast, chillies, and cinnamon. Grab two bottles of any that you find – one to drink now, and one to drink after 12.12.12. They are generally Belgian-influenced, and each of them has their own style-defying “twists”.
J.W. Lees Harvest Ale
Probably one of the most commonly aged beers, this English Barley Wine comes in at a heft 11.5% ABV. It’s a big, chewy, and sweet beer that will change slowly over time. Vintage bottles of this ale are fairly easy to find (I recently grabbed a 1999 off the shelf!). This is one of those beers that can pretty much be aged for decades, and it’s not uncommon to hear about people sampling vintages of this beer from the 1980s. Barrel-aged versions of this beer are also available.
St. Bernardus Abt 12
The label on this bottle-conditioned Belgian Quad claims that the beer can be aged for up to 15 years. Known as one of the best and most widely available Trappist Quads, the beer has notes of dark fruits, caramel, and spice notes from the Belgian yeast strain. It is available all year round at finer bottle shops.
Some other styles that are usually good candidates for aging: Geueze, Imperial Stout, Barley Wine, American Wild Ale, Old Ale, Belgian Strong Dark Ale, Quad, Braggot, Flanders Red Ale, Wheatwine, etc.
Note: There are a few styles of beer that you do not want to age. These include Pale Ales, IPAs*, and other hop-forward styles, as well as low ABV beers such as Berliner Weiss, Wits, Wheat Beers, etc.
*Some beers labeled as IPAs can potentially be aged, I.E. Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, Founders Devil Dancer, Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree, etc.
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