Out Of The Cellar: A Beginner’s Guide To Aging Beer
Sometimes I forget that I am WAY more involved in craft beer than the average person. The reminder always comes when I talk to someone at the bar about a beer being much better with a year or two on it. Quite often their head cocks slightly to the right or left and the expression on their face reads “Why wouldn’t you just drink it?” It got me to thinking that a little write up about aging or cellaring beer might be a helpful thing.
Let me start by saying, I am no expert on the subject. I have been aging beer for a couple of years now, and am learning new things all the time myself. This is designed for those people who have little to no experience aging beer. For the most part, you want to start with higher ABV beers (8% and up) and bigger beer styles (Stouts, Barleywines, American Strong Ales, Belgian Quads etc.) but there are exceptions to the rule. I will touch on some of those in a bit. At the end of the day, aging any style of beer won’t make it go bad, but it might make it taste bad.
Why Start a Beer Cellar?
I have people ask me fairly often, “Why would I want to age a beer?”, which is a great question. There are two common reasons to age a beer. The first is to dull the alcohol taste or heat (aging will not lower the ABV). The second is to mellow hop flavor and bitterness. This tends to bring out a bigger malt profile and sweetness in many beers. It is also fun to see how a beer changes and develops over time. What flavors fade? What new flavors appear?
What Not To Age
Generally speaking I would say avoid aging these beers and drink them as fresh as possible.
- Most Lagers: Pilsners, Steam Beers, American Adjunct Lagers, Oktoberfest, Vienna Lagers, Schwarzbier, Bock… Really just about all lagers shouldn’t be aged. The major exception in the lager world would be some German Dopplebocks.
- Mild Ales: Blonde Ales, Wheat Beers, Red/Amber Ales, American & English Pale Ales, Pumpkin Ales, English Bitters, Cream Ales, IPA’s etc. Although most IPA’s are best when had as fresh as possible, there are some Double and Triple IPA’s out there that are often aged. I would suggest only aging an IPA if it is about 10% ABV or higher. Right now I have a few bottles of Dogfish Head 120 Minute, Dogfish Head Burton Baton and Bell’s Hopslam in my cellar to see what a year or two does to them.
- Low ABV dark beers: Milk/Sweet Stouts, Oatmeal Stouts, American & English Porters, American & English Stouts, Dry Irish Stouts, Black Ales/IPA’s, Brown Ales etc. You can sit on these styles a bit longer than the ones above, but I would still try and drink them fresh. Generally the lower the ABV the less time I would wait.
What To Age
These are the kinds of beers you want to put aside for another day.
- Stouts: Most anything 8% ABV or higher should develop with time. Russian Imperial Stouts, American Imperial Stouts, some Baltic Porters, Belgian Stouts etc. One of the things to keep in mind when aging these kinds of stouts is some of the adjuncts added. Flavors like coffee, chili spices, bourbon, vanilla and hops typically fade away over time. If you are a big fan of one of these flavors in a limited release you might want to consider drinking them fresh, or only cellaring a few bottles. Aging big stouts like this can also help mellow out that big roasty flavor if that isn’t your thing.
- American & English Barleywines: This style of beer was almost designed to be aged. After about a year, this super hopped up beer will usually mellow out and become sweeter and smoother, while still retaining a good bit of hop flavor. A little sooner for English Barleywines which tend to be less hoppy to start with. Unless there is a barrel treatment involved I almost always age my barleywines for at least a year, and sometimes much longer. This is also true of Wheatwines, a relatively new, but growing style.
- Sour Ales/Wild Ales: Almost all sour ales can be aged for many years: Lambics, Gueuze, Flanders Oud Bruin etc. This is one of the ABV rule exceptions. Many sour ales come in at 5% ABV or so, but they still develop very well. I have not had a lot of experience with aging sours, but time tends to subdue the sourness a bit. A new trend of using wild yeast strains is growing and is producing yet another beer to cellar. The wild yeast tends to develop new flavors in the bottle as it continues to do it’s thing. Many wild ales are also sour ales, but not all. Wild ales can also break the ABV “rule”.
- Almost anything Belgian: I would not hesitate to age almost any style of Belgian beer, although I focus on Belgian Strong Ales, Quads, and Sours (see above). I have even had some success with some Dubbels and Saisons. The only Belgian style I would specifically avoid aging is the Witbier.
- High ABV Dark beers: Old Ales, Winter Warmers, Scotch Ales/Wee Heavy, Braggots, American Strong Ales. Stick to the 8% ABV rule with these beers and you should be good.
To get started, all you need is a cellar and some patience!
Of course not everyone has a literal cellar to store their beer in, and some guys get so into it that they buy or have fridges built just for their beer! For the most part you just need a relatively cool and dark place to stick your beer until it is ready to drink. My cellar consists of most of the flat space in my bedroom closet. As for the beer itself, I will suggest starting small. Age a few things and get a feel for the hobby.
The first beer I aged was Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. It’s an outstanding barleywine that is easy to find and readily available each year. When Bigfoot is released, buy yourself a 4 pack and drink one. Then put the other 3 aside for a year. When it comes out the next year buy another 4 pack and do a side by side tasting. This will help you taste what happens with age. Do the same thing with a favorite stout, quad, or whatever you like. Eventually you will figure out the sweet spot on all of your favorite beers. For example, after doing some aging experimentation I know that I really like Founders Imperial Stout at about 6 months old. As your cellar starts to grow, I will suggest using the website Cellar HQ, it is an easy and fun way to keep track of your beer cellar.
So get out there and pick up some great beer.. and don’t drink it! At least not for a few months. Cheers!