An Introduction to Aging Beer

Posted on July 13th, 2009

oldChimay3Although the most commonly held belief is that that the only way to enjoy beer is when it is as fresh as possible from the brewery, there are in fact many beer styles which, when properly taken care of, benefit greatly from aging much like fine wine.

During a trip to Belgium I once had the opportunity to try some  aged beer, including a dunkelweisse from 1979 and a Chimay from 1986. They were fantastic, with a smoothness and mellowness akin to fine brandy or port.

When kept properly beer can be aged for decades or even longer. In 2006, a cache of beer was found in an English brewery dating back to 1869, and the beer was still good. You don’t have to wait over 140 years for beer to benefit from aging though, just a few months in the right conditions will make certain beers noticeably improve in flavor.

Let’s take a look at the basics of aging beer.

The first thing you should know is that not all beer benefits from aging; the majority of the beer you drink should be consumed as soon as possible. Beers that have strong hop profiles, IPAs and the like will not age well. Hops tend to break down and dissipate over time leaving little of their spicy goodness to be enjoyed.

Similarly, beers which are not bottle conditioned and have been artificially carbonated will not age very well. The removal of the yeast from the bottle largely halts the aging process. Your favorite pilsener or wheat beer should be enjoyed sooner rather than later. Stronger and sweeter bottle conditioned beers, such as barleywines, stouts and many Belgium beers however will age beautifully.

Here are some traits that makes a beer well-suited for aging:

The first quality which makes a beer a good candidate for aging is a strong alcohol percentage. Beer with 8% alcohol and up generally age very well, as the strong alcohol flavors will mellow out over time and become smoother and more delicate.

Secondly, bottle conditioned beer, that is beer with active yeast still in it, ages extremely well. Because the beer is still alive it continues to condition the beer, constantly adding complexity and subtlety to beer.

The next trait which allows beer to age well is sweet, malty flavors. Because hops tend to break down over time and lose their flavors you can’t rely on hoppy beers to age well. Inevitably the hop flavors will subside making the flavors from the malt and grain stand out. For this reason beers with sweet, roasted and malty flavors do well when aged. The residual sugars which give a beer its sweet taste also react well with the alcohol to create mellow, subtle flavors.

aging2
Aging beer should be stored upright in a cool (50-60F), dark, dry place, but not too dry. A fridge seems like a good idea but it will keep your beer too dry and over the long haul can cause a cork or bottle cap to loose its seal. For these reasons basements and other cellar-like environments do wonders for aging beer, the most important thing however is that a beer should be kept in consistent conditions. A space which fluctuates wildly with outside condition will not do a beer any favors.

If you decide to try aging your own beer a good way to do it is to buy two bottles of the beer. One should be consumed immediately and one after aging, this will allow you to really notice how much the aging has changed the beer.

Much like wine, aged beer will eventually peak and slowly stop aging significantly. Knowing when is the best time to drink your favorite aged beer can be tough to gauge, there is still much to be learned about how beer ages. Generally speaking the stronger the beer, the longer you should give it. The strongest beers (around 12% and up) can be aged for decades, while relatively lighter beers will be at their best after anywhere from a few months to a few years in the cellar. You may have to do your own experiments to determine when your favorite beer is at its peak. The toughest part of such experiments of course is resisting the urge to drink the beer now, but believe me, the end results are well worth the wait.

Sorry Michelob, Beer isn’t a sport drink. Stop counting calories.

Posted on July 10th, 2009

For the last few years Michelob Ultra has been oddly promoted as some sort of ‘sport beer.’ Even though a recent study suggests that beer can rehydrate better than water after exercise I don’t think anyone is ditching their Gatorade for beer when heading to the gym.

Michelob Ultra’s tag line of “Lose the carbs. Not the taste.” just doesn’t make much sense if you think about it. The main ingredient in beer is barley after all, which as a grain is almost entirely carbs. This means Michelob is basically trying to simultaneously increase the flavor while decreasing the ingredients, something that is bound to be met with failure.

Miller has also recently gotten in on this quest to have the lowest calorie beer, with  MGD 64 whose commercials seem to suggest that every other beer is wildly rich in calories.

If you look at the facts however this simply doesn’t add up. MGD 64 only has about two and half calories per ounce less than Michelob Ultra, which means 64 calories of it would only be a sip or two less than MGD 64, not the shot that is portrayed in the commercial. The same thing applies when you compare Michelob Ultra to Guinness, which with its nickname “liquid bread” is frequently considered to be an especially heavy and calorie-rich beer, but it only has about two calories more per ounce than Michelob Ultra, which again is the difference of only a sip or two when having a pint of it.

beer calories

The point to take from all this is that yes, some beers have less calories than others but not all that much and quibbling over a few ounces here and there isn’t going to make much of a difference and you’ll lose a great deal of flavor in the process. Despite what Michelob would have you believe, beer simply isn’t a sport drink.

How Beer is Made

Posted on July 6th, 2009

beerprocess0b

Beer is made from four basic ingredients: Barley, water, hops and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from grains (usually barley) so that the yeast can turn it into alcohol and CO2, creating beer.

beerprocess1b

The brewing process starts with grains, usually barley (although sometimes wheat, rye or other such things.) The grains are harvested and processed through a process of heating, drying out and cracking. The main goal of malting is to isolate the enzymes needed for brewing so that it’s ready for the next step.

beerprocess2b
The grains then go through a process known as mashing, in which they are steeped in hot, but not boiling, water for about an hour, sort of like making tea. This activates enzymes in the grains that cause it to break down and release its sugars. Once this is all done you drain the water from the mash which is now full of sugar from the grains. This sticky, sweet liquid is called wort. It’s basically unmade beer, sort of like how dough is unmade bread.

beerprocess3b
The wort is boiled for about an hour while hops and other spices are added several times.
What are hops? Hops are the small, green cone-like fruit of a vine plant. They provide bitterness to balance out all the sugar in the wort and provide flavor. They also act as a natural preservative, which is what they were first used for. (For more info on hops take a look at our article on the subject.)

beerprocess4b

Once the hour long boil is over the wort is cooled, strained and filtered. It’s then put in a fermenting vessel and yeast is added to it. At this point the brewing is complete and the fermentation begins. The beer is stored for a couple of weeks at room temperature (in the case of ales) or many many weeks at cold temperatures (in the case of lagers) while the yeast works its fermentation magic. Basically the yeast eats up all that sugar in the wort and spits out CO2 and alcohol as waste products. (For more info on the difference between ales and lagers check our article here.)

beerprocess5b
You’ve now got alcoholic beer, however it is still flat and uncarbonated. The flat beer is bottled, at which time it is either artificially carbonated like a soda, or if it’s going to be ‘bottle conditioned’ it’s allowed to naturally carbonate via the CO2 the yeast produces. After allowing it to age for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months you drink the beer, and it’s delicious!

All drinks have ‘drinkability.’ Shut up, Bud Light.

Posted on July 2nd, 2009

Bud Light & Drinkability

Budweiser has recently launched a major ad campaign centered around Bud Light’s unique ability to be placed in your mouth and swallowed, or as they refer to it, “drinkability.”

This is apparently something that sets Bud Light apart from other drinks. Really Budweiser? Let’s take a look at one of those ads.

I have to agree with Budweiser on a few points. Something is generally easier to drink when it’s not being sprayed at you from a hose at full blast, or not hot sauce, or not hail (which as a solid and not a liquid is in fact impossible to drink.) Last time I checked however none of the other light beers out there were any of these things, they were in fact beer, and generally served in glasses. So unless there’s some brewing company I don’t know about making a hail and Tabasco flavored beer that’s sprayed at you from a hose, I’m not sure if Budweiser is really making much of a claim for Bud Light.

What’s the difference between ales and lagers?

Posted on July 1st, 2009

alelagersQ

Like red and white wine, ales and lagers are the two key divisions in beer styles. Instead of being determined by the type of grape used however, lagers and ales differ chiefly in how they are fermented. Not sure what the difference is? Well, let’s find out.

Chances are you’re not quite sure what exactly fermentation is, but that’s okay. All you need to know at the moment is that it’s the process that happens when yeast eats up the sugar in pre-fermentation beer (called wort) and spits out CO2 and alcohol as waste products.

fermented

Ales are fermented by yeast that hangs out at the top of the wort (hence the name top-fermenting) and needs just a few weeks at room temperatures to work its magic.

Lagers on the other hand settle at the bottom of the wort (which is why they’re called bottom-fermenting.) Lager yeast needs cooler temperatures just above freezing and much more time to do its thing; months, instead of the weeks it takes ales. This is why the word “lager” comes from the German verb for “to store.”

aleslagers

While lagers tend to be a little crisper than ales, whether a beer is a lager or an ale really doesn’t limit the flavor, strength and style it will possess.  Americans are most familiar with the pilsner style of lager thanks to the efforts of big brewing like Budweiser or Coors, but there are countless other lager styles out there as well, from bock to marzen.

It should be noted that not all beer can be so neatly placed in these two categories. There are hybrid styles like the California common (or steam beer) that combine lager ingredients with an ale fermentation to produce a unique style, which was the result of the limited refrigeration options available to German emigrants in 1800’s California who tried to mimic the lager styles of their homeland.

Additionally, there are Belgian lambics which are traditionally produced using a process know as “spontaneous fermentation,” in which the pre-fermentation wort is exposed to the open air in parts of Southern Belgium where certain yeast grows naturally and will find its way into the beer on its own, rather then being added by man.

Whether and ale, lager or something else, there are a lot of beer styles out there to try. The next time you’re enjoying your favorite, twitter using the #mybeer hastag to let us know and join in the conversation.