Chances are, you’ve seen an old movie, or perhaps read in a book, where in celebration of a special occasion, the host will blow the dust off of a vintage bottle of Lafite-Rothschild Bordeaux to mark the occasion. I, for one, would like to be sitting at that table – no matter if the wine was good, bad or indifferent, you would remember it well.
Which brings us to the question for today – does that work with beer? Does beer, like wine, improve with age? As with wine, the answer can be yes, but can also be no. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the reasons why.
First off, while both wine and beer are yeast-fermented, the similarities pretty much end there. Wine derives much of its character and flavor from tannins, which comes from the skin and stems of the grape, and which imparts the bitterness and astringency (or “dryness”) of the wine. Additionally, grapes are rich in natural acids, as well as sugars, which are both necessary to balance out the sweet and sour aspects of wine. And lastly, the bouquet of a wine is the result of chemical changes and the wine’s reaction to the oxygen in the oak barrel over time, which can impart subtle aromas such as currant, pepper and oak into the wine.
So for a young wine just bottled, these natural processes may not have quite reached their conclusion, and laying down the bottle for a period of time can allow for the wine to develop to its optimal flavor. Short version – a couple of things happen – the tannins soften and are less astringent, and they prevent aromas from evaporating. And, the acidity level reduces over time, further mellowing out the wine.
Beer, on the other hand, gets its flavors from malt (sugars), hops (bitterness), and yeast. It is generally less acidic than wine, and is also lower in alcohol content. How does cellaring a beer affect these elements? Depends on the style of beer, as well as how it was cellared.
Excluding the macro beer world of Bud, Miller, and Coors, the largest segment of the beer market these days is comprised of pale ales and IPAs, short for India Pale Ale, which are hop-forward beers. Meaning, much of their flavor profile is derived from the flavors and aromas of the hop used. Problem is – hop aromas and flavors are like spring flowers – they don’t last too long, and they don’t get better with age. Makes sense, as the hop cone used in brewing is the flower of the hop plant – who knew?!
Aging one of these beers only results in a beer with less of the very flavor that you wanted in the first place – so why do it? In a word – don’t. Do yourself a favor – drink this style of beer fresh. I recommend no more than 90 days from being bottled (or a bit longer if on draft in a good beer bar), any longer and you may find yourself the proud owner of a shelf turd. Oh, you know what I’m talking about, one of those beers that has sat too long on display in the harsh lighting of a bottle shop, and that when opened, just flat out disappoints. Skunky, dull, stale, that kind of thing; fortunately, this is largely avoidable, if you buy fresh (check the neck or packaging for the bottle date), and keep the beer in a dark environment (more on this later). Oh, and IPAs should be kept cold in the fridge until opening, ok?
The second largest segment of craft beer sales (I’m speculating here, so don’t challenge me with facts!) are porters and stouts – malty beers that derive their goodness from the roasted malts used in the boil. Less dependent on hops for flavors, these styles are better candidates for aging. But, that said, most are not meant to be cellared, as aging doesn’t improve basic flavors, and can allow for the popular flavor adjuncts such as coffee, cherry or other additives to fall off over time.
There are beers, though, that do lend themselves well to aging. For example, beers aged in whisky or bourbon barrels can taste “hot”, with a strong alcohol burn associated with the type of barrel the beer was aged in. Depending on your palate, this may be a good or bad thing, but if the burn overpowers the other sought-after flavors of the base beer itself, rendering them moot, then it’s more likely to be a bad thing. Laying down these bottles can give them a cooling off period, and let the nuances of the base beer reemerge.
Another category worthy of aging are B.A.S. beers, short for Big Ass Beers, those with higher alcohol content and very strong flavors – think Russian imperial stouts (RIS) and barleywines. Ever heard tell of a rare whale called Dark Lord? First bottled in 2004, and released just once a year by 3 Floyds on Dark Lord Day, this pitch-black viscous concoction is a RIS so complex and powerful (15% abv!) that some recommend laying it down for at least five years. (The story of Dark Lord Day is worth telling, so I’ll reserve that for next’s month edition.)
The aforementioned barleywines, so called because their alcohol content approaches that of wines, can also be aged. Barleywines come in two general classes – English and American. English styles are more dependent on roasted malts, whereas American styles are (of course) more aggressively hopped. But, it doesn’t matter which side of the pond you prefer – both are high in abv, and aging brings with it more sweetness, smoothness, and less alcohol heat.
The last prime candidate for cellaring is the beer ambassador to funkytown – sours. Sours include wild ales, lambics (brewed with cherries, raspberries, apricots), gueuze or “gose”, Flanders Red, and Berlinerweise, among others. The primary characteristic of sours is tartness, which is due to their high acidity level relative to other beer styles. Also, sours generally have very little hops, with the yeast responsible for the flavor. Because sours are often brewed and bottled with active yeast still present in the bottle, they can (and do) change in the bottle. By putting one aside, you can (hopefully) let the process play out to just the right level of sour funk, flavor, and carbonation.
The risk here, though, in laying down a bottle is that you can’t tell when the time is right to crack it open. Some flavors are enhanced in the early stages of aging, but then proceed to fall off quickly if aged too long. Aging also brings a smoothness to the brew, but if can go too far, leaving the beer tasting buttery or with butterscotch flavors. And sometimes, over carbonation occurs in the bottle (because fermentation wasn’t complete at the time it was bottled), leading to a gusher when the bottle is opened.
If you do decide to start cellaring beers, there are some definite do’s and don’ts. First off – light is a killer, as visible and UV rays are the root cause of skunking. Keep it stored in the dark. The other main variable is temperature, and while there is some debate about what’s optimal, the general consensus is between 50 and 60 degrees. Note though, that the higher the storage temp the more rapid the change in the beer. As for whether to actually “lay them down” verse storing them standing up, stand them up. As opposed to wine, which needs exposure to oxygen to mature, this is not the case with beer; the less oxygen that gets in the bottle the better. Standing the bottles up keeps the liquid away from the cork or cap, and slows the rate at which oxygen makes its way into the brew. Lastly, set it and forget it. Agitation is not a positive for a cellar beer, so frequent moving of the beer is not optimal.
My last tip is that when you do decide the time is right, an you open one up - enjoy it with friends – this kind of beer is best shared and savored amongst company. And, if you’re talking about tasting a multi-year vertical of a white whale – Count me in! I’m your Captain Ahab! Until next month, cheers – and good luck with aging! (A classic double entendre – see what I did there?)