April 12th, 2011
The First Sip: Aging Beers 101
I hope most of you had a chance to find your self some Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 11 recently. I was talking with a friend about the beer, and the Divine series, and I had mentioned to him how I had a few earlier Divine Reserves aging in my beer fridge. He was a bit confused as the concept of aging beer was foreign to him. Come to think of it, in my early craft beer delving days, the idea was foreign to me as well. As such, I figured I’d use this rendition of The First Sip to introduce you to why, when and how to age beer.
When to Age Beer
Let’s start with this… not all beer can be aged. There is a reason that some beers (macro swill and craft labels alike) have a “born on date”, “bottled on date” or expiration date. Your average beer has a shelf life of about 6 months (give or take, depending on the beer), after which the quality starts to decline. Light lagers, pillsners, wheat beers and mild ales are particularly delicate and should be enjoyed as soon as possible.
The beers you do want to age are your big, bold flavored, and high alcohol beers. Barleywines, Belgian strong ales, imperial stouts (or almost anything imperial for that matter… “imperial” is a beer term that essentially means the beer is a beefed up version of the original style, usually with much more alcohol), sour ales, barrel aged beers and other strong ales. The exception to this rule is IPAs and Imperial IPAs (also known as double-IPAs) which, although they are bold, flavorful and high in alcohol, are best enjoyed fresh. I’ll explain why later.
Why Age Beer?
The idea of aging beer can come off a little snooty and I’ll admit, I feel rather douche-baggish when I tell a friend that they can’t have a certain beer in my beer fridge because it doesn’t have the proper age… but the ends justify the means. The art of aging beer is similar to why you lay down a fine wine.
The idea is that, by giving the beer time, you are allowing all the beauty of the beer flavor to develop. A great way to illustrate this is by thinking about the alcohol content in a beer. A high alcohol beer is great, but you don’t want to feel like you are drinking beer schnapps. In its youth, a high alcohol beer has some sharp, or hot, alcohol flavors that can deaden the palate to the layers of flavor in a beer. After a year or two, the alcohol will mellow and fusel alcohols (the bad alcohols that make the “hot” sensation) will dissipate, creating a beer that is smooth and enjoyable rather than feeling like you are choking down a shot.
In addition to mellowing the alcohol flavor, aging the beer also affects the flavor components. As I mentioned before, there are layers of flavor in these big beers. Brewers make these monster beers to create a drinking experience, not just another beer. Over time, these flavors have time to properly mature and blend. Bottle conditioned beers are especially wonderful to age as the yeast in the bottle continues to clean up any off-flavor compounds, thereby “cleaning up” the flavor. Within a year or so, malt flavors become more rich and developed and the specialty malts are able to stake their claim in the flavor profile.
Hops are another story. Hop bitterness is fairly volatile and doesn’t age well, so time will make a beer much less bitter. Sometimes, this is a good thing. When a brewer makes an American barleywine, they will typically pack the beer with so many hops it’s almost ridiculous. So when you taste a young American barleywine, the green hop flavor is almost overpowering. Given a few years, that hop presence is dialed back and the malt backbone comes through to support the lingering bitterness.
The delicate nature of hops is the reason you may not want to age an imperial IPA. Imperial IPAs are meant to be a vessel for maximum hop delivery. They are made primarily to showcase what a hop explosion tastes like. I recommend drinking them fresh and getting that full blast of hops. Save the aging for your barleywines. (Although there is some debate in the craft beer world about what the difference is between a big IIPA and an American barleywine, but that’s a discussion for a different article).
How to Age Beer
First of all, and perhaps the hardest part… you will need willpower. Put the beer away, out of sight. Be strong. On that note, always buy more than one of whatever beer you want to age. Enjoying one right away will take off the “edge”. Also, be sure to take tasting notes (in a few years you may have forgotten how the beer was originally, so you’ll have no baseline for comparison). Once you have that down, here are the technical aspects.
The three most important aspects of aging are:
First off, and most important: temperature. Heat is the absolute worst thing for beer. The second worst thing, is temperature fluctuations. Ideally, you want to have cellar that has temps that are constantly in the mid-high 50’s. This will impart a wonderful ambient environment for ideal aging. That being said, if you don’t have a dedicated cellar (I don’t) then your refrigerator works just fine. Just place them on the top shelf (it’ll be the warmest) and all the way to the back (so they aren’t victim to temperature changes when the door is opened).
Secondly, try to keep them dark. Light is no friend of beer. Brown bottles help to limit the damage light does to a beer, but it’s not perfect. Green bottles are even worse. Clear bottles? Don’t bother aging them. Light reacts negatively with hop compounds and can cause the beer to “skunk” (hence why Heineken in a green bottle has its signature skunk smell, whereas Heine from a keg does not). Unlike some other off-flavors, skunked flavors will not age out of a beer. Once a beer is skunked, it’s skunked for good.
Lastly, is storage. Unlike wine, beer should be stored upright. There is some debate on storage of corked beers, but most experts out there will tell you, store the beer upright. Put it somewhere it won’t be bothered. You don’t want to shake, jostle or knock over a bottle of aging beer and allow all the settled out yeast and sediment to go back into solution.
Another storage note, be sure to label the beer somehow. I will always take a Sharpie and mark either on the bottle or on the cap the month and year that I am putting the beer in to age. That way I can quickly check at any time and see what beer I have and how old it is.
So that’s all you should need to know about aging beer. It’s actually a really interesting experience. After 2 or 3 years, you have a completely different beer than what you started with. One of the best beers I have ever had was a Dogfish Head Midas Touch that I aged for about 2 years.
Here’s a good way to get started. We beer geeks like to collect different vintages over a few years and do “vertical tastings”. One of the easiest beers to do this with is the Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine. They release the beer every year and indicate what year the release is on the bottle cap. Grab a six pack, drink 5 and put 1 in your beer “cellar”. After 5 years of collecting, line them up and taste them (starting with the freshest and working your way back to the most aged). I’ve done a vertical with this beer a few different times and it’s always amazing how much the beer changes over 5 years.
As always, stay crafty my friends!