Ageing beer is easy: how to get the best from your bottles
First things first: I’m not just talking about how best to store your beer for a few days before you get around to drinking it. This is about thinking long-term – keeping a beer for a year or more to discover how its flavours develop and (with luck) improve over time. Check out my other post if you want to know how to store beer and keep it at its best. If you want to learn how to age beer at home, then read on.
You can’t age just any old beer
Some beers are meant to be drunk fresh. Light bodied hoppy beers deteriorate quickly. New England IPAs for instance have a shelf-life of just a couple of weeks. This is because the flavour- and aroma-producing oils and acids in the hops deteriorate with exposure to time, air, light or warm temperatures. Pasteurisation is another thing to keep in mind. If you beer has been pasteurised, it will stay fresh longer but it won’t develop. For this reason it’s not worth cellaring.
So, which beers should you be looking for? The general rule is if a beer is strong, sour, or smoked you can age it. This is because high alcohol, acidity, or smoke phenols act as preservatives, slowing the rate at which the beer ages. Strong here refers to beers with an ABV of 8% or more. However, this isn’t enough on its own. If you have an IPA or another hop-centric beer, like amber lagers, American pale ales, or American strong ales, you’re looking at a beer that will age quickly even if it’s at 8% ABV or higher. Beer styles that typically respond well to ageing include vintage beers, barleywines (particularly British ones), imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales, lambics, and old ales. Look for also a beer that has some active yeast left. There’s an article going into this in more depth over on craftbeer.com.
Once you’ve found a beer that fits the bill, buy at least two. Three or more is better. You will want to drink one of them straight away, and to make notes. That way you will have a comparison to judge the other bottles against when you decide to open them. This second bottle should be opened at least a year later, and possibly longer. If you have three or more bottles, you can then decide whether they’re ready to drink now or need more time to develop.
Ageing an IPA
Strictly speaking you can age IPAs. That’s how the style first came about after all. It was heavily hopped to survive the long sea voyage from Britain to India. However, the hop flavours will degrade. The beer you open after ageing will not have the fruity, hoppy characteristics that we tend to look to the style for these days. You should drink these beers fresh if you value their hop aromatics. Otherwise, give ageing a go to see how the beer develops, but remember it may not age as well as other styles. I recently tasted a two-year-old Cloudwater DIPA. It was sweet and jammy, and fairly interesting in itself, but I don’t think I would have wanted more than a small glass of it.
Get the conditions right
So you’ve got some suitable bottles. You’ve probably laid out a bit of cash on something decent. Thankfully beer’s a relatively inexpensive hobby compared to some others you could have chosen. But even so, you’ve shelled out a bit and you want to get the most bang for your buck. That’s only natural. So take care of those special beers. Treat them right, and make sure you give them every chance to age well and return your investment which is not only money but time.
Which temperature is best?
When you age beer all sorts of processes are going on inside the bottle. The beer is fermenting, its flavours are maturing, and oxidisation is taking place. By storing your beer below room temperature, you can slow all of these processes down. This means you can avoid a situation where bottle fermentation proceeds too quickly and shortens the lifespan of the beer. Be careful not to store it too cold though, otherwise you risk turning it permanently cloudy. Somewhere around 10°C to 13°C (50°F to 55°F) is usually best. You may hear this referred to as cellar temperature. When the time comes to open up a bottle, serve the beer as close to its storage temperature as possible. This will help keep its carbonation and flavour.
If you’ve read my post on recommended serving temperatures, you will know that long-term storage in the fridge is not suitable if you want to age beer at home. Refrigerators are designed to keep food dry, so dehydration of cork can become an issue. If you want to age corked beers long-term, keep them somewhere cool and dark with moderate humidity levels.
Is temperature really that important?
If you age beer in conditions that are too cold, it will become cloudy and flat and its flavour will dull. This is because the low temperature will slow or stop the fermentation process. If on the other hand you age the beer somewhere it’s too warm, then the fermentation will be too vigorous. The yeast will consume all the sugars and shorten the life of the beer, and the beer will become over-carbonated. This could lead to it gushing when opened.
It’s worth keeping in mind that exposure to light, particularly ultraviolet light, can cause light-strike (also known as skunking). This will happen pretty quickly in bright conditions – for instance in a sunny beer garden – but it can also happen over time with prolonged exposure to even artificial light. For this reason it’s best to keep any beer you’re ageing somewhere nice and dark.
Another pitfall: movement
This one’s probably not going to be a problem unless you live in a houseboat or want to age beers in the boot of your car for some reason. (I mean… who knows? People are weird.) It’s worth noting that movement can exacerbate the problems caused by oxidation – basically by mixing things up and exposing more of the beer to any oxygen present in the bottles. So it’s best to avoid moving any bottles that you’re ageing as much as possible.
What happens when you age beer?
[pullquote cite=”craftbeer.com” type=”right”]”Ageing a beer that is meant for the process, like a strong ale, barleywine, lambic, imperial stout, or others, helps the beer to mature and gives it a totally new life from it’s fresh brewed one.”[/pullquote]
So you’ve followed your do’s and don’ts and stored your beer in optimal conditions. What next? Ageing a suitable beer allows the flavours to mature – that’s all well and good, but what does that actually mean? Thankfully, enquiring minds have followed this path already. One of whom, C. E. Dalgliesh, produced a graph showing how the flavours and aromas in beer change over time.
The first thing we see is bitterness decreasing. This is because, as I’ve mentioned already, the oils and acids from the hops that cause this bitterness (as well as fruity aromas) are quick to degrade. As the beer ages, sweet honey or sherry aromas and flavours increase. These are joined by a less pleasant paper or wet cardboard aroma after a time, as oxidisation occurs, which then also increases with age. Last of all, we can see a curved line representing ribes. This is an aroma commonly described as being catty, or similar to tomato or blackcurrant leaves. This will increase very quickly at first, peaking at around three months in, before slowly fading away again.
Here’s a quick bullet-point summary:
- Bitterness decreases
- Harshness decreases
- Fruity and floral esters decrease
- Ribes (catty/black currant character) increases
- Wet paper/cardboard character increases (oxidation)
- Bready character increases
- Sweetness (toffee/honey) increases
- Metallic character increases
- Earthy character increases
- Straw character increases
- Woody character increases
- Vinuous character (wine/sherry/stale fruit) increases
- Meaty-like/brothy flavors can develop (autolysis)
Benefits of ageing beer
As we’ve seen above, the primary benefits of ageing beer are related to its flavour. Ageing beer allows harsh characteristics to soften, while other flavours blend together increasing the beer’s complexity.
It’s worth the effort to age beer in the hope it will reach that sweet spot where bitterness has receded but is still present, the sweet sherry and honey notes have grown without becoming overpowering, and the oxidised cardboard aroma (caused by trans-2-nonenal) is not yet causing problems. But ageing beer has another benefit: it allows us to enjoy vertical tastings.
In a vertical tasting, multiple years of a given beer are tasted to see how ageing affects its flavour. You can include as many years as you have bottles for, and track the development of the beer over the years to discover when you think it is at its best.
I’m going to point you towards someone else for a great example of this in action – in the video below Jonny and Brad from the Craft Beer Channel taste and discuss three bottles of Orval, one very fresh, one nine months old and one approaching three years old. It’s great to see the differences they find in the beer.
I hope to reproduce this myself one day – either when this post is three years old, or sooner if someone has a three-year-old bottle of Orval they care to share with me!
The ultimate obstacle for ageing beer
OK so we’ve got this far and we’ve agreed that ageing beer is a good thing. We’ve got a pretty decent idea of how to do it too. But there’s something else that can go wrong – another obstacle that I haven’t yet covered. If you fall foul of this one it’s all over, your beer ageing endeavours will be stopped in their tracks and irreversibly ruined. I’m talking of course about giving in to temptation and drinking the stuff before it’s ‘ready’.
How to deal with this? A few ideas…
- out of sight, out of mind: stick it far away in a dusty corner of the attic or somewhere else you almost never go.
- so much beer, so little time: make sure you have so much fresh beer around that you simply don’t have time to crack into your special reserve
- forgetfulness is a blessing: hide those precious bottles away and then forget your ever owned them in the first place – perhaps with the aid of a few other bottles judiciously consumed at the time.
To be honest I can see a couple of problems with that last option. The point is to drink these beers at some point, after all. So if you do give in a crack a bottle or two, don’t beat yourself up. Beer is supposed to be fun in the end, so if you’re enjoying yourself then you’re doing it right.
What’s in your cellar?
I use the term ‘cellar’ loosely, of course. Mine is a cardboard box at the bottom of a kitchen cupboard. Your long-term storage may be better than this – and if you’ve read all of this post then it probably won’t be any worse – but it’s the contents I want to hear about. What special bottles do you have stashed away in there? How long have you had them, and when are you planning on opening them? Share the goods in the comments below.
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