Sometimes customers ask about beers that are able to be aged, such as a fine wine. While most beer (and wine) is produced for immediate consumption, there are beer styles that lend themselves to aging. Most beers should be consumed within a few months of their production. This is especially true for beers that are meant to be crisp and bright, very hoppy beers and beers with a lower alcohol content. Desirable qualities that are brought about by aging beers tend to be complex, and include nutty, toffee-like, dark chocolate, leathery or almond like notes that you might find in fine sherry. Aged beers may also tend to be mellower, not possessing the “hotness” a higher alcohol beer may have.
“Aging” should be distinguished from “maturation” of beer, and “staling” of beer. Maturation takes place over a period of a week to a few months, generally at the brewery as the “green” beer becomes ready to drink. Staling refers to the degradation of the beer as unwanted and unpleasant flavors develop as a result of exposure to heat, light or oxygen. Aging, on the other hand, is intended to enhance the beer by adding complexity and depth over time. Oxidization is an enemy of beer. Rapid oxidization is almost always bad, and brewers take great care to avoid it. The small amount of air the bottle, or that seeps through the cap will eventually take its toll on the beer. Have you ever wondered why some beers have wax covering the cap? It helps keep air from seeping through into the beer. However slow oxidization can be positive for certain styles, and in a properly aged beer, it can bring about some of those desirable qualities.
Most lagers, especially pilsners, fall into the bright and crisp category. These qualities will be lost over a short period of time, and thus these beers should not be aged. Highly hopped beers, such as IPA’s, also fair better when consumed right away. Hop bitterness and aromas decrease over time, and eventually lead to undesirable tea-like flavors. So take a tip from Stone’s Enjoy By IPA series, and drink your hoppy beers right away. Lower alcohol beers and major production beers such as Bud and Coors should also be consumed while still fresh.
So what beers lend themselves toward aging? While there are no hard and fast rules, generally beers that are higher in alcohol lend themselves better to aging. Beers that are high in residual sugar, such as barley wines, imperial stouts and old ales also tend to age well. Strong dark trappist ales and abbey ales are also candidates for aging. Beers that have high hop bitterness (as opposed to hop aroma) tend to age well, as long as they are more malt forward in the aroma. While not always the case, darker beers tend to age better than lighter beers. Some exceptions are Belgian style triples and lambics. Tripels are usually bottle conditioned, and the presence of live yeast in the beer adds complexity over time. Lambics rely on wild yeast for their unusual flavors, and also become more complex over time. However, bottle conditioned beers also tend to lose their head retention over time as the yeast breaks down the proteins in the beer.
So you’ve just picked up a bottle of imperial stout and a barleywine, and are ready to store them for aging. First of all, unlike wine, where the bottles are laid down so that the cork stays moist, beer should be aged standing up. Beers are either capped or corked with a compressed champagne style cork that won’t need to stay moist. Standing a beer up will allow the sediment to collect at the bottom, as opposed to along the side of the bottle, making it easier to keep out of the glass when you pour. The ideal temperature for aging a beer should stay constant, at around 52-55 degrees Fahrenheit. Colder temperatures will slow the aging process, and warmer temperatures will accelerate the aging process and encourage staling. Beer should always be stored in a dark place, as light damages any hops present in the beer, creating a skunky flavor. Some folks will buy two beers, one to try now, and one to age. Others will age a beer, wait a year or more, and then buy new bottle of that same beer to try against the aged one.
A few beers that we currently have in stock that you may consider aging are:
Dogfish Head Bitches Brew Imperial Stout. $17.49 for a 750ml bottle.
Avery Czar Imperial Stout. $9.99 for a 22oz bottle.
Gouden Carolus Kaiser Blau Belgian dark ale. $14.49 for a 750ml bottle.
Hanssen Geuze Belgian Lambic Ale. $22.49 for a 750ml bottle.
Tripel Karmelit Belgian Ale. $14.49 for a 750ml bottle.
Dogfish Head Old School Barleywine. $4.99 for 12oz bottle.