Aging beer - are you serious?

Frowthblower Files Oct 2012

Aging beer - are you serious?

From Bro Mike of Lodge Devoiton

Why Not Just Drink the Beer?

Beer, like wine and cheese and cigars, is an agricultural product that changes and develops over time. An aged beer will, generally, taste more rounded and even; it’s highest and lowest notes smoothed out. While most commercial beers have the yeast filtered from them before packaging, some “bottle conditioned” beers still have live yeast present in the bottle and they will continue to act on, and alter the flavour of, the beer for many months or years. Some bottle-conditioned beers also include a variant strain of brewer's yeast called brettanomyces (brett). This species of yeast is added very late in the brewing process and its impact on a beer’s flavour is more difficult to detect in fresh beer. However, give the brett a few months to work and the subtle dry and tart flavours gain prominence.

An aged beer can be quite distinct from the same beer from a recent batch, and one of the most interesting aspects of aging beer is a “vertical tasting” where the same beer from several different years are tasted side-by-side to highlight the developments. Maybe you got a little carried away and bought a couple of bottles of a beer you hadn’t tried (or worse yet, a whole case), and it turns out you’re not a huge fan of the fresh beer. Maybe in three or six months you’ll like it better. Maybe after a year it will be your new favourite!

What Beers Should I Age?

When it comes to the cellar, not all beers are created equal. Apart from bottle conditioned beer, some will benefit from a few months of rest, some need to go to sleep for few years, and many will only become unbalanced and muddied. Many experts suggest only aging beers higher than 7- 8% alcohol volume. The higher alcohol beers that may have a sharp or “hot” note while fresh will often smooth out considerably with some age, allowing you to taste the more subtle flavours that the alcohol was masking.

For aging, Malt = Good, Hops = Bad

The other key guideline to selecting beers to put down, generally maltier and darker beers will develop with age well. The roasty and complex malt characters becoming more assertive. Hop-heavy beers on the other hand are best fresh. This seems counter intuitive since hops are used as a preservative in beer, but the complex flavours that are looked for in Indian Pale Ales (IPAs) and the like will fade in a matter of weeks or months.

As anyone who’s had a past-its-prime Double IPA can tell you, a hoppy beer that has lost much of its hoppy punch is not only unbalanced, it can be near undrinkable. As a hop-forward beer ages the first thing to go is the wonderful hop aroma. The complex hop flavour will next begin to lose its definition before fading into the background all together. Age a hoppy beer long enough and the bitter acids will oxidize, and the beer will actually lose much of its bitterness. What you are left with is a stale, sweet, and pale malt beverage.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. Experimentation is the name of the game: find out what the beers you love taste like in 6 months or a year.

The Best Candidates for The Cellar:

High alcohol bottle-conditioned malty beers are be the prime candidates, and the obvious choice would be Belgian Abby and Strong Ales. These are classic cellar-dwellers. Imperial Stouts and Barley Wines are the other most common choices for aging. Sour beers, because of their bacterial inoculations, are another style that would probably age well, as would a barrel-aged beer as the congeners from the wood will continue to develop the beer’s flavour.

How Should I Store My Beers?

Beer has three main enemies throughout its life: oxygen is the worst of the bad-guys, and his henchmen light and heat will help speed a beer’s flavour down the drain. Oxidation will stale the beer and introduce sherry-like flavours at first that can quickly become an overwhelming “wet cardboard” taste. Oxidation occurs quicker when a beer is warmer, so keeping a beer cool is key. Light of course, the UV variety, will react with the hop compound in the beer to produce sulphur compounds that result in the distinct twang of rotten eggs.

Find a Place to Call Your Cellar

The “cellar” should be chosen to minimize all of these factors:

§ Unlike wine, store beers upright. This minimizes the amount of liquid in contact with the gas present in the headspace of the bottle and will slow down the process of oxidation.

§ Store beer in the dark. Sunlight and fluorescent lights are full of radiation that will destroy a beer. Brown bottles are better than green or (gasp) clear bottles, but the beer inside can still be effected if exposed to enough light for long enough.

§ Store beer in a cool place. Generally 10-12 degrees Celsius is the optimal temperature. Any cooler than that and the actions within the beer will slow and the “aging” will occur more slowly, and any warmer than that and the beer is at an increased risk of oxidation.

§ Don’t let the temperature fluctuate. Big swings of 5 or more degrees each way will wreck havoc on the chemical processes in the liquid and should be avoided.

Now we don’t all have the luxury of a subterranean earthen cellar to lay down our precious bottles in and few of us have the luxury of a spare closet to devote to beer (especially if already full of wines). But closets turn out to be our best option. A closet situated near the centre of your home is best as these have the smallest temperature fluctuations. Even then, unless you are using climate control 24 hours a day over the summer, there will be some pretty big swings in temperature. Just make do the best you can, and think about your sleeping beauties as an experiment and not an investment. Expect undrinkable results and hopefully be happily surprised.

For Beer Nerds - Take Notes

It may seem a little nerdy, and well, it is. But then you are a beer-nerd or else you wouldn’t be bothering to store beer for months or years before you drink it. Embrace the nerd and start a cellaring notebook. Keep the details on what beers you add to the cellar, when you laid them down, what they tasted like fresh, and how they change over time. Not only will this help you keep an inventory of what is in all those unmarked boxes, but it will become a valuable tool for selecting new beers to lay-down each year.

How Long Should I Let My Beer Sleep?

Years? Months? There isn’t an easy, or a wrong, answer. Beers begin to change the day they come out of the tank. IPAs show signs of deterioration within a few weeks. Cellarable beer will have noticeable changes as early as three months and definitely within six. If you have the beer budget, I would recommend you purchase enough of a particular beer to try every three months for two to three years. If you notice the beer has peaked, it’s time to refrigerate and enjoy them as soon as possible.

This focus on experimentation is the key. Don’t let your cellar become a source of stress, that just defeats the whole purpose of drinking and enjoying a fine ale!

It’s Time, How Should I Drink My Aged Beer?

Most of the styles that cellar well should also be served at cellar temperature (10-12 C). You can get away with a slight chill to start so that you can really experience the flavours blossoming as the beer warms up, but keep your aged bottles out of the fridge! Share your aged bottles with your closest friends, and use smaller pours into snifters (a balloon shaped beer glass) to really savour the aromas and flavours.

Apart from that, consider a vertical tasting with a few different “vintages,” or at least a fresh bottle next-to the aged bottle. This is especially important when just starting out as it is the easiest way to learn how time is effecting your beer. Use your cellar note-book when you are tasting!

Aged Beer Sounds Good, But What If I Don’t Like It?

If you are curious about trying aged beers, but you don’t have the inclination or patience to set-up your own mini cellar you are not totally out of luck. Some of the better bars and taverns will have some reserve bottles available for purchase, just be prepared to pay for the time that they put into aging those beers. Additionally, keep an eye out for older “forgotten” bottles at your local bottle shop. You never know what you might find covered in dust and left for months or years! Failing that, you can always turn to the internet and beer trades to find some already-aged bottles.

Beer Deluxe at Fed Square in the city or Burwood Rd, Hawthorn is the ultimate destination if you want to sample a range of local and international craft and aged beers. Melbourne's Belgian Beer Cafe Bluestone in St Kilda Road, and the Belgian Beer Cafe at Eureka Tower, Southbank, are unofficial embassies of Belgium and have a large range of different beer styles.

Try It, You Might Like It

Aging beer is becoming more common and popular, and many breweries are releasing beers that are meant to be aged so you may want to start a new hobby and set up a beer cellar or just stick to fresh beers which is the way most hoppy beers should be drunk.