This write-up wouldn’t be possible without the invaluable contributions of writer Patrick Dawson whose book, “Vintage Beer,” is excerpted here. You can read the rest of, “Vintage Beer,” and support Patrick by purchasing the book here.
At Firestone Walker, many of us have basements, closets, or fridges full of beer cellaring for a future date or special occasion. Why are we doing this? The answer is simple, really: aging beer allows various flavors not immediately present to develop over time. Want to know which beers are suitable for aging, and what happens to them? Read on.
Selecting Beers to Age
Not all beers are good candidates for the effects of gentle aging and cellaring. Unless the beer is sour, smoked, or has another dominant character such as strong spicing, the alcohol content should be at least 8% ABV. Alcohol acts as a preservative, slowing the effects of time and allowing more mature flavors to develop. Sour and smoked beers have other preservatives (lactic acid and smoke phenols) that can slow and alter the effects of age in positive ways.
Ideal Styles that can be cellared: Barleywines, Imperial Stouts, Belgian style Quads, and other high-abv beers with dark malts. Barrel-aged sours and rauchbiers are lower ABV but can age beautifully.
Beers that shouldn’t be cellared: Any beers with hop-forward characteristics, such as IPAs and Pale Ales. Most lagers and session beers are also poor candidates for aging and should be consumed fresh.
How to Cellar Your Beers
Find a cool, dark space. Temperature affects the rate of oxidation, which over time can lead to beneficial sherry and portlike characteristics. At higher temperatures, the effects are accelerated and less enjoyable. 55 degrees is the highest ideal temperature. Our Firestone Walker cellar is kept at 40 degrees.
Light also damages beer, best to keep the lights off.
Store bottles upright. This lessens the small amount of oxygen in the neck of the bottle/can from having more surface area contact with the beer. It also helps ensure cap and cork integrity over time.
Keep inventory. Ideally, these bottles are squirreled away in a cool basement or fridge. Best to keep track of what you have.
At Firestone Walker, we have always kept a cellar of our releases to see how they develop over time.
What to Expect in Flavors
Proprietor’s Vintage, our line of spirit barrel-aged beers, are fantastic candidates for gentle aging. Expect a few of the following characteristics to develop over time from strong, dark beers such as these:
- A beer’s booziness eventually mellows and creates new, aging-derived flavors such as fruitiness, caramel, and toffee.
- Darker Malts create sherry and port flavors. Specifically, amber-colored malts turn to sherry notes and roasted malts develop chocolatey and port-like characteristics. Roasted malts also have anti-oxidant properties, slowing aging effects on the flavor of the beer.
- Yeasty, earthy flavors found in Belgian-style beers can develop into vanilla, leather, and tobacco characteristics when aged.
- A beer’s body slowly thins due to malt proteins dropping out. These can be found at the bottom of the bottle – best to slowly taper these beers into a glass.
- A rare consistent element, oak flavors from barrel-aging stay fairly steady over time. Perception of barrel characteristics can increase as other flavors mellow or increase with age. Slowly, vanilla flavors will disappear, but coconut and cinnamon characteristics generally remain.
- Hoppiness and bitterness fades over time and can leave behind subtle fruity characteristics.
Find Vintage beers from our cellar available for sale here.
Our Barrelworks program features all tart and wild beers, made from a variety of yeast and bacteria that work their magic in used wine barrels. These beers fall under the “sour beer” category and age gracefully for 20+ years. You can expect the following changes in barrel-aged sour beers:
- Acidity slowly mellows with time. It can lead to a more complex and delicate beer as other flavors are given the opportunity to arise.
- Wild yeasts, specifically Brettanomyces, continue to ferment slowly in the bottle, creating more complex aromas and a drier beer over time. During cellaring this slow-and-steady yeast will eat any residual sugars, creating unique spicy, fruity, and funky aromas.
- If the beer has fruit, some of that fruit character will mellow as the levels of acidity and flavor fluctuate.
Find Barrelworks beers from our cellar available for sale here.
Final Thoughts on Aging Beer
Breweries release beer ready to drink. This is the time the beer stands as the brewmaster intended it. Not all beers are perfect for aging, and when in doubt, drink it fresh.
Drink one fresh!
Understanding how beer changes over time only works if you have an understanding of what it tasted like, to begin with. If there is a beer you want to cellar, buy 2 (or more!) and make sure to open one soon.
Our Tastes Evolve.
While these beers change over time, so do our palates. Tastes change. Be cognizant that comparing the flavor of a 5-year-old beer in your glass to your memory of it long ago is nearly impossible. Enjoy the beer in front of you.
Don’t Wait Forever.
We recognize the tendency to save special beers for a hypothetical day down the road. There are a few beers we regret opening, and some we wish we did so sooner. And remember, opening a special beer can make any get-together a special occasion – Cheers!