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.