The Question of Aging – Beer, That Is!
Wine has been stored and aged for centuries, but aging isn’t only for vino. Beer does very well when aged properly (well, a lot of beers do). Aging allows beer time to develop character, new flavors, and for strong flavors to mellow out and blend better with the beer as a whole.
As consumers, we’ve been conditioned by the food industry to drink things when they’re freshest. “Born-on dating” used by Bud has contributed to the misperception that beer doesn’t age well. Budweiser might not do well in a beer cellar, but no self-respecting beer lover would put one down there in the first place.
Beer aging has become incredibly popular with the craft brew scene, but there are a few things you should know before you start stashing bombers and rare 12-ounce bottles in the floor of your hall closet. Here’s a quick primer for those new to the question of aging beer.
What Types Age Well?
First, let’s look at what types of beer age better than others do. You can immediately count out most big beer – Bud, Miller, Coors and their ilk aren’t worth the time and trouble, and they’re not particularly well suited to aging anyway. You need craft beer for this or at the very least a premium international beer rather than the watered-down stuff that American big breweries produce.
High Alcohol – Beers with high alcohol levels age very well, and you’ll find that the longer you let them age, the more mellow the alcohol flavor becomes, melding and blending with the other notes. This means that anything of 8% ABV or higher can be aged.
Bottle Conditioned – Beers that are bottle conditioned (bottled with live yeast to carbonate the beer in the bottle) can do very well during the aging process. The yeast will continue to live and reproduce as long as there is sugar to consume, so you’ll get a higher alcohol percentage out of the aging process, but also new flavors too.
Malt – Any beer style that relies more on malt than hops will usually age well. While that means your typical India pale ale isn’t necessarily the right option for your cellar, stouts, porters and other malt-heavy brews can do well.
Brews Better Fresh – While the aging process can bring out the flavors and add character to some brews, it can take things away from others. India pale ales are better fresh, as are any other beer styles that rely heavily on hops. In fact, the fresher the better with these beers. If you’re interested in aging a hoppy beer anyway, keep it chilled during the aging process. Stick it in the back of your refrigerator and forget about it for a year or two.
Old Doesn’t Mean Bad
Despite what big beer tells us about freshness, and the fact that many hoppy beers do taste better when fresh rather than when aged, there is no such thing as beer going bad during aging. Yes, the flavor and profile will change. Yes, those changes might not be to your liking. However, don’t be afraid to give it a try. Even a few months of aging can make a very real difference in how much you enjoy that brew (or don’t enjoy, depending on the type of beer in question). As Dogfish Head points out, loving beer means being willing to experiment. Sometimes those experiments don’t go as you’d like, but the process is half the fun.
The Question of Storage
Ok, aging beer is a process that doesn’t require a lot of skill, although you’ll do well with patience. With that being said, you do need to ensure that you’ve got the right area to age your brews. While you can drop that bottle pretty much anywhere you want (don’t actually drop it – that could be messy), you’ll have better results if you do things right.
The enemy of a well-aged beer is oxidation. The same process is responsible for your body deteriorating over the years, and the reason so many doctors are teaching about antioxidants today. There are two things that increase the rate of oxidation in your brew – light and heat. While there’s nothing you can do to stop the oxidation process completely (and you don’t want to, as that’s what changes the taste), there are ways to control it.
Make sure wherever you store your beer is dark. The less light that enters that room, the better your results will be. The hall closet might not be the right option if it’s opened frequently. A dark corner of your basement is a better choice. Heat is your other problem. Ideally, you’ll age your beer at somewhere between 50 and 55 degrees F. That might be hard to achieve in an area of the home where you actually live, but the basement can usually accommodate that temperature range.
The thing to watch about storing your beer in the basement is that the humidity level can get too high. If you have a lot of moisture in your basement from water seeping in through the concrete, it can cause issues with the aging process. Your humidity level should be between 50 and 70%.
Then Where Can I Store My Beer?
It’s important to remember that the information above is intended as a loose guide, not strict rules. The only two real rules in aging beer are to keep light out, and to keep the temperature as low as possible (but not below 50 degrees). Everything else is secondary, and even the temperature rule is more of a guideline, as most homes don’t have a location that doesn’t experience considerable temperature fluctuations throughout the course of the year.
Aging beer can be a lot of fun, and you might be surprised at the way some of your favorite brews change over time. Why not put down a bottle or two for a year or so and see what happens?