When I was younger, I definitely correlated the age of a beer with quality of that beer. I’m not certain what it was, beyond general ignorance of my affections’ object, that led me to believe so; perhaps it was a poorly understood and inappropriately-applied transitive reverence for wine, something I detested but nonetheless probably thought of as sophisticated. Aged wine was rarer, costlier, perhaps even stronger – so why not beer?
Anyway, it was my fervent belief that time enhanced, and that possessing vintage bottles was impressive. So I socked away bombers and 750s of beer (usually, but not always, high in alcohol and dark) in a box in a closet in whatever sterile apartment I happened to be presently occupying. I would pluck them out of the dark, occasionally, and regard them somberly.
All of that beer is long since drunk, or perhaps sipped at and then discarded as befit the muddy stale mess it became. I stopped, ah, ‘cellaring’ beer long ago, my innate cheapness and cultivated aversion to object fetishism getting the best of the hobby.
I’ve also learned a great deal about beer since then, including the fact that aging beer is not usually a particularly rewarding enterprise. While there’s certainly something to be said for building an archive, or even just collecting, in most instances the laying down of a prized bottle of beer isn’t liable to improve it, merely to change it, and perhaps not in a way that you’ll altogether enjoy.
Another thing I’ve learned about aging beer: people don’t seem to understand it all that well, up to the point of having some fairly strange and wildly incorrect ideas about it.
So why age a beer, and what happens when you do?
What happens, above all, is oxidation. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, oxidation causes some of the most common undesirable characteristics, or off flavors, in package beer.
Oxidation is not generally desired in finished beer.”
Beer in cans and bottles is condemned to a certain amount of oxidation from the moment its container is sealed; oxygen present in both the empty head space of the package and dissolved within the beer itself will actively stale the beer over time, resulting in unpleasant vegetal, papery, and stale/dead flavors. Changes in temperature exacerbate and accelerate this process. It happens over time regardless of the quality of the package, the level of dissolved oxygen in the liquid, or the constancy of the temperature (although this last will guard against oxidation more than any other measure; hence the practice of storing in temperature-stable cellars).
Oxidation is not generally desired in finished beer. Some beers – relatively few, and certainly far fewer than most people think – benefit from extended aging and the possible positive qualities that oxidation can impart.
Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of packaged beer (and yes, even and especially stouts) comes to market ready to drink; that is, the brewer does not intend any extended aging in order to make the beer better than it already is. In most production beers that the brewer feels can benefit from a little more time before consumption, a period of maturation has already occurred at the brewery, in tank, barrel or package.
There are many notable exceptions, but generally extended aging is unnecessary, and many brewers would say undesirable. An imperial stout that has aged for sometimes years in various barrels at the brewery and then been blended to the brewer’s notion of perfection is probably not going to experience a marked increased in quality from time in your “cellar,” especially if that cellar is a damp basement without temperature control.
All that extended aging of most beer will produce are oxidation characters of one kind or another. Most people have probably experienced these in the context of strong, heavy, dark beers; they become sherry- or madeira-like, leathery, alcohol may soften, bitterness may fade, adjuncts like coffee may diminish and then disappear. Certain fruity esters may recede while others, particularly those redolent of dried fruit, develop and come to the fore. Unpasteurized and unfiltered beer aged for extreme lengths of time may pick up a savory, soy sauce-like umami note from yeast autolysis.
Often these qualities add up to a beer that’s sweet, stale, and gross, in my estimation. But again: there are no master narratives, so if you enjoy those qualities in your beer, age away, my friend.
Not all of beer's aging characteristics are caused by oxidation, however.
One very good reason to age beer is if the beer is living. Living beer, that is, unfiltered, unpasteurized beer packaged with either viable yeast or other microorganisms (like the bacteria lactobacillus and pediococcus) has the possibility of further development over time due to additional fermentation activity, not just oxidation.
“Bottle conditioning” refers to beers packaged with live yeast; yeast in the bottle (or can or keg) will continue to slowly consume residual sugars and produce carbon dioxide, adding additional – or, in the case of some traditionally-produced ales, all – carbonation to the beer.
Some beer, such as traditionally-produced Belgian gueuze, is nearly completely flat at bottling, and undergoes a true “bottle refermentation,” whereby younger beer with more residual sugar is added to a drier, older lambic. As the melange of bacteria and yeast consume the sugars present in the younger beer, gueuze becomes very highly carbonated indeed; the intense pressures produced by the second fermentation require heavy, high quality glass bottles stoppered with wired corks.
Pasteurized and filtered beers – the majority of beer sitting on store shelves today – are not bottle conditioned, however, and will not develop, only age, oxidize and change.
Aged gueuze may be wildly different than younger versions of the same beer.”
As hinted at above, wild ales like gueuze can greatly benefit from extended aging. Aged gueuze may be wildly different than younger versions of the same beer, and may be drier, funkier, tarter, or softer depending on the particular vintage and combination of microflora specific to it.
One of my favorite things about the group Lambic.info is seeing the ancient, verdigrised bottles of lambic called forth from cellars worldwide – decade-plus old bottles are not an uncommon sight. Some Belgian brewers and blenders, such as Boon, give their wild ales expiration dates fifteen and twenty years into the future. But some “clean” beers, that is, beers fermented exclusively with brewer’s yeast and no additional microogranisms, can also, under the correct conditions, benefit from extended aging.
Perhaps the most popular style choice for extended aging is barleywine. The style is generally high in alcohol, above 8%, and stronger beers generally express more desirable aging characteristics than similar beers of lower strength.
Barleywine in particular has a rich history of cellaring. I once led a vertical tasting of J.W. Lees’ famous Harvest Ale with vintages dating back to 2001. This barleywine, brewed once a year and renowned for its ability to develop complexities with extended aging, makes a great foray into aged beer for those without excess time, patience, or resources; one may find bottles of advanced vintage in good beer stores across the country.
Below, you can see six vintages of the barleywine arrayed in order from youngest to oldest, left to right: 2014, 2013, 2008, 2007, 2002 and 2001, respectively. Note the beautiful color gradation as you progress from the most recent vintage to the oldest; beers tend to darken over time as oxygen interacts with various compounds in the solution such as malt melanoidins. The older vintages also bore a not unsurprising amount of sediment, but were surprisingly less muddy than the ‘07 and ‘08 vintages, which seemed to have hit an unhappy middle age.
Most of the vintages expressed a pleasing sherry- or almond-like quality which is, you guessed it, a long term effect of oxidation. Curiously, JW Lees’ Harvest Ale is pasteurized and filtered for long shelf-stability; it is not a living beer, so any development of flavors in the bottle will be almost entirely oxidation-derived.
This was a wonderful tasting, and it taught me something valuable: I don’t care much for aged barleywine.
If you’re aware of the possible pitfalls and (to my mind) rather limited rewards involved, and still decide to purposefully age some beer, there are a few well-worn guidelines. With few exceptions, stronger and darker beers age best (above 8% alcohol by volume and 10+ SRM, for instance). Light and heat are your enemies, so pick a dark, cool spot – temperature stability is arguably more important than the ideal range of 50F-58F, but aging in a place where temperatures regularly exceed, say, 70F will greatly accelerate the oxidation process, most likely with less than desirable results. Conversely, temperatures below 50F may slow the aging process considerably, so your refrigerator is not the best resting place for your reserve. Keep the bottles upright; as proteins and sediment precipitate out over time, you’d much rather the mud settle at the bottom of the bottle than along its entire length, making for a much easier and more gunk-free pour.
Finally, if aging beer is more than a passing curiosity for you, you absolutely need to lay hands on a copy of Patrick Dawson’s excellent Vintage Beer. A pleasure to read, and deceptively detailed for such a slim volume, it explains the dynamics and practicalities of beer aging better than any single source I’ve ever come across, and certainly better than this short article could hope to.
If you must age beer, do so respectfully and thoughtfully. Anything worth doing – even if all you’re doing is waiting – is worth doing right.