- Mike Riedel
You might have noticed that many lagers and ales on the market are starting to skew to the heavier side of the beer spectrum. Besides robust and full-bodied flavors, the higher alcohol content in certain beers creates a perfect storm for aging.
For the most part, beer does not age well. The fermented grain beverages we enjoy are far more delicate than their alcohol-infused grape- or apple-based cousins. Like bread, these liquids are best when fresh, and have a comparatively short shelf life.
Brewers will usually proclaim that beer fresh from the brewery is the best version. However, on rare occasions, some beers can benefit from a little time in the bottle. A year or two can intensify flavors and add greater complexities that the beer might not have had when it was young. The best candidates for aging are generally high-ABV beers: barleywines, Russian imperial stouts, barrel-aged beers and other big brews that creep up above the 8 percent ABV clouds. If you've got the shelf space and the willpower, the following tips might help you get the most out of your beer's potential.
Let's just get this out of the way: IPAs do not age well. As a matter of fact, the fresher the better with these ales. Unless you like the taste of cardboard, enjoy IPAs young.
Schedule: If you're able to, buy three bottles. The first should be enjoyed immediately. You never know how well a beer will age, and you'll want a good base comparison going down the road. The second beer should be revisited about a year later, then break out the third bottle whenever you see fit.
Barrel-aged: These beers are already aged and become infused with the flavors in the wood. These are some of the more complex beers that will definitely change over time.
Bottle-conditioned: These beers have active yeast cultures inside that continually re-ferment the beer for as long as you store it. Refrigeration slows the evolution and extends the beer's life.
Brettanomyces-inoculated: This unique-tasting wild yeast is often used as the main yeast or as an additive. When young, these beers have a funky and doughy barnyard-like flavor that's raw and potent. With age, however, this yeast strain develops a fruity tartness that, left unchecked, can turn disagreeably sour. This is the beer that will undergo the greatest change in your cellar, so monitor them every six months or so.
Vertical and Reserve labels: When you see these words on the label, think "buy for future use." The term "vertical" means enjoy chronologically with other vintages of the same beer. "Reserve" beers are often anniversary releases and generally intended to be aged.
Now that you know what to look for, you'll need a dedicated space to store your time capsules. Beer requires three things to age properly: darkness, a cool space and a stable environment. Beer and light never go well together, regardless of whether it's the sun or a lamp. Too much light will skunk your beer. A cool (not cold) space allows the beer to evolve slowly. If it's too cold, the changes will be stunted. Finally, don't mess with them. Think of your cellared beers as infants: The less you agitate them, the happier you'll be.
Just remember that there's a limit to aging beer; if you wait too long, you'll end up with large expensive bottles of soy sauce—and that would make you a very sad beer nerd. As always, cheers!