I think the most surprised reactions I’ve encountered when talking to people who aren’t very familiar with craft beer have come when I’ve mentioned aging certain beers for extended periods of time. The only beer commercials you see on TV zealously promote the importance of freshness with their products. And with regard to their products, they are absolutely correct. Many beers are best consumed as fresh as possible, including the big brands with big advertising budgets.
And even many craft beers are best fresh. Hefeweizens, witbiers, pale ales, and most IPAs (in other words, the beers that comprise the majority of all craft beer sales) all have flavors that fade and dull over time. For the staples, fresh is best.
But many age quite well. Alcohol hotness mellows, hop flavor and bitterness decline and transform. Oxidation creates sherry flavors. Complexity increases as dominant flavors fade and a wider range of subtle flavors become more evident.
There is no exact science for how to determine which beers you should squirrel away in your cellar, but there are some major principles to keep in mind. Both alcohol and hops are natural preservatives, so the higher the alcohol and the hoppier the beer, the better it will fare over time (keeping in mind that the hop flavor will change and diminish with age). The go-to styles most people start with are imperial stouts and barley wines, typically the biggest beers you’ll find. Also popular are Belgian strong dark ales.
Other natural preservatives include lactic and acetic acid, one or both of which are responsible for the sour flavor in beers such as traditional lambics, Flanders ales, American wild ales, and some saisons. Sour beers are my personal favorites to cellar. Nothing compares to a ten year old Cantillon Gueuze. The acidity becomes less piercing and more rounded and amazing subtle complexities develop.
In addition to the alcohol, hops, and sour guidelines, think about uncommon ingredients in certain beers. Honey pretty much never goes bad. Mead (honey wine) is reported to be suitable for aging indefinitely. So beers with honey in them are likely good candidates for cellaring. And if you happen to share my disdain for over-spiced beers (like many pumpkin beers), try throwing a few in the cellar for a couple years and see what happens. Spice flavor mellows over time.
One of the fruits of cellaring beer is something that is not possible when cellaring wine: vertical tastings. A “vertical” is when you collect multiple vintages of the same seasonal (Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, for example) and then gather a friend or two to taste them all in one sitting. This is illuminating with beer because good brewers produce products of consistent flavor and quality from batch to batch. A fresh Bigfoot will taste the same each year. So when you collect multiple vintages you are able to taste exactly how aging changes the flavor of the beer over time. In contrast, wine is famous for some vintages being superior to others when fresh; wine is not consistent from year to year, so a vertical tasting would be of little value.
You may now be wondering, “So how should I store this beer for extended aging?” Good question. Not everyone has an actual cellar in their house. And beer presents a bit more of a logistical challenge than wine, since beer should be stored with the bottles in an upright position as opposed to wine, which can be laid on its side. I use an old bookshelf in my basement. I have friends who live in apartments who just use the floor of their coat closet. The ideal conditions for extended aging would be dark, a temperature around fifty degrees Fahrenheit and mild humidity. But few people can afford to dedicate much space in their home to maintaining such conditions, so just do the best you can. My basement hovers in the high 60s in the winter and low 70s in the summer, and I’m happy with how my cellared beers have ended up.
So go out, grab a four pack of Yeti, a four pack of St. Bernardus Abt 12, a four pack of North Coast Old Stock Ale, a few bottles of Hanssens Oude Gueuze, and stash them all in the coolest, darkest place in your house or apartment and open one per year for the next few years. You can thank me later. Bigfoot will be released in a couple months, so your first vertical collection begins soon.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.