In-depth: Aging Beer
If you have started to get into the craft beer scene you have probably started to read various sources of beer reviews or ratings. You may be surfing on ratebeer or beeradvocate and have obviously somehow found this blog.
Through these travels you likely have encountered examples of beer that has been aged months up or years. Many beers continue to improve with age.
I know in my reading I have come across numerous instances of this. What confused me was that I would see some beers that were considered to get worse with age. These beers were recommended to be consumed as soon as possible. This actually applies to virtually all mass-produced beers you will find.
This led me to wonder what the difference was and how I could identify beers that would benefit from me purchasing and aging them. Lots of beer aficionados will purchase beer of a particular vintage, sometimes numerous bottles, then leave them to sit for a few years. You may then sample the same beer of different vintages or agings. This is known as a “vertical” tasting.
Well I was doing some reading and research and I have found the reason why. It now seems obvious and maybe you already figured it out – in that case I guess I am dumb. It all depends on whether or not the beer is still sitting atop the live yeast.
In many commercial brewing operations the yeast is going to be filtered or pasteurized. This means the yeast has either been removed or it has been systematically killed off. In either case you won’t see any complexities develop with age.
When some yeast is left at the bottom of the bottle it will continue to slowly consume the sugars and progress to more advanced sugars. As it does this it produces additional alcohol and enhances the flavor profile of the beer. In other words, it “ages”.
Now the jackpot indicator for a beer begging to be aged are the words “bottle-conditioned” this means the brewer has intentionally left live yeast in the bottle. Beer that is bottle-conditioned will likely benefit from aging.
Also, the higher the ABV % the better a beer will likely age.
Now you know. If you want to age a beer and expect it to get better – first confirm that there is some unpasteurized yeasty sediment within the bottle for that brew.
There are also variables to take into account regarding beer styles when choosing what beer to age. For example, IPAs are characterized by fragrant hoppy flavors. These flavors will almost certainly degrade over time. Although you may still age them, if there are no other flavors to back up the hops it likely won’t impress you when aged.
Beer styles with high ABV, like Barleywine or Strong Belgian Ales, are generally good candidates for aging.
There is a whole lot more information that goes into aging beer including how to store it, where to store it, etc. I don’t have a beer cellar going yet but maybe that will go on my to-do list. If it does – count on a more in-depth discussion.
Sidenote: I am not sure how realistic a beer cellar for me is given that I am not sure I could resist all those special beers whispering “drink me” for a few years.
I am all for aging beers, but as you said, some should be drank right away. Not only the macro beers but also IPAs are best fresh.
January 26, 2011 at 11:06 AM
You are absolutely right Jay. IPA’s, and in general hoppy beers, will get less hoppy with age.
If you are drinking an IPA it is assumed you like hops and this would be a bad thing.
I will update the post to reflect a tidbit on beer styles.
Thanks for the input!
January 26, 2011 at 11:08 AM
Great post! Funny you mention vertical tastings… a guy I know, “Miracle Max”, is very into this. Here is a brief exchange with him regarding Brooklyn Chocolate Stout:
Miracle Max: I have a bunch of “aged” BBCS. Maybe 8-10 different annual brewings (can you call them vintages if it ain’t vino? Hops comes on a vine right?). Vertical Tasting!!!!
G-LO: So it is indeed Miracle Max! Have you figured out the BBCS break even point yet, i.e. at what point does it go from getting better with age to getting worse?
MM: It depends on the person, the beer temperature, and how much you have already drank. In the beginning I like the very old, but it is very subtle, mild, a lot of alcohol flavor and syrupy with very little hop or carbonation. Port-like. Then …as my tongue gets slightly numbed from the high alcohol (or just used to the flavor) it starts to be too watery. At that point I start liking it younger and younger. If it gets too warm sometimes too much bite comes through and I start to go back towards older (which is now getting a bit more flavorful with the rising temp). Other people reacted differently, some like the very young at first but over time said they started to appreciate the older… I think I normally like it around 5yo if I just take one out of the fridge to drink by itself. By the time it reaches 10 (under my storage conditions) it seems like a waste of beer, although I like to save a bottle or two just to illustrate the point in a vertical tasting – It is NOT an infinite projection upwards but in fact a bell curve.
G-LO: So 5 is the magic number. I don’t have the patience to let anything sit around for that long, especially beer or whisky. The only alcoholic beverages that tend to linger are the mixers, i.e. gin, vodka, rum, etc.. Have you done verticals with other beers or just the BBCS?
MM: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine, and some other high gravity beers. I have around 8 years of Bigfoot. I think I have 20+ cases of various beers right now.
G-LO: You’re ready for the Apocalypse! 😉
Just thought I’d share!
Keep up the good work. 🙂
January 26, 2011 at 11:19 AM
I love your comment! Thanks for posting that.
I really like Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. I have now been inspired to buy a six pack of it from the local beer shop and store it.
I could then test this 5 year theory. I would keep all six to age and drink one around the same time each year and record my thoughts.
According to miracle max I should see a bit of a drop off with the last bottle!
I’ll consider trying this but I really don’t think I could make it 5 or 6 years…
January 26, 2011 at 11:28 AM
You’re very welcome!
I have not done a vertical tasting, but it does sound interesting. I just don’t have the patience for it. Miracle Max hasn’t invited me over for one yet. 🙂
January 26, 2011 at 4:40 PM