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.

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.