Originally published April 28, 2010
Ninety-nine percent of the world’s beer is brewed to be enjoyed as soon as possible after it has been bottled, canned or kegged. There’s no doubt that fresh beer is best — but then there’s that remaining one percent that proves the exception to the rule.
But if most beers are best served fresh, why age beer at all?
Like vintage wines and spirits, beers that have been stored properly for a period of time mature into amazingly complex beverages. Older beer becomes drier and more vinous. It develops rounder, mellower flavors, becoming refined, even elegant.
As a general rule, ales — and beers over 8 percent alcohol by volume — are especially good candidates for aging. The stronger the beer, the longer it can be aged without losing all its positive flavor components.
The exception to that rule is sour beers. Many lower-alcohol sour beers, such as lambics, benefit greatly from aging. And, unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned beers, which still have live yeast in them, will continue to improve with age. Malty beer tends to hold up better than hoppy beers. (That may seem counterintuitive, since hops were originally added to beer as a preservative. But while hops will keep a beer fresher with than without them, they begin breaking down after a few short months).
Beers that are ideal for aging include Belgian-style dubbels (which can be aged 1-3 years), tripels (1-4 years), Belgian strong dark ales (2-10 years), Imperial styles (roughly 1-6 years), barley wines and imperial stouts (2-20 years) and extremely strong, high-alcohol ales, such as Samuel Adams Utopias (up to 100 years). Many barrel-aged beers, spicy beers and winter ales can be aged too.
Heat and light are the enemies of beer, so the place you store your beer should be cool and dark, and protected from temperature fluctuations. A constant 55 degrees, plus or minus five degrees, is ideal. Every 10-degree hike in temperature means beer will spoil twice as fast. Unlike wine, bottles should be stored upright to slow oxidation.
Perhaps the best — and certainly the most fun — reason to age beer involves experimentation. Do a vertical tasting to see firsthand what time does to beer. Many big beers do a new version each year and vintage date the label or crown. Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, for example, uses a different crown (or bottle cap) with the year clearly printed on them. That allows you to buy a six-pack each year and put a few away for aging. In a few short years, you can have a world-class vertical tasting, opening the newest bottles first and the oldest last.
In the end, thirst is probably the biggest hurdle to aging beer. That’s why I also recommend putting your cellar out of sight, if possible. That will keep you from opening all your bottles too soon. Patience truly is its own reward.
One of the best beer fests in America is coming soon. The Boonville Beer Festival takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. May 8, rain or shine, at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds. The festival has grown exponentially in recent years, and the organizers tell me there will be even more breweries pouring this year.
At 116 miles north of San Francisco — just over two hours by car — it may stretch the definition of “Bay Area,” but it’s that very remoteness that lends the festival its unmistakable charm. Many people make a weekend out of it, and with camping available nearby, the excursion doesn’t have to break the bank. Bring a tent and it’s only $12 a person per night or $30 for RVs, campers and trailers. Tickets are $40 in advance ($50 at the gate). Full details can be found at avbc.com. See you there!