Old Time, that greatest and longest established spinner of all!…. His factory is a secret place, his work is noiseless, and his hands are mutes. — Charles Dickens
I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this conversation.
Me: “…and if you lay this beer down for a year or two, it’ll mellow, the flavors will change, and it’ll be even better.”
Customer: “You can age beer?”
So the short answer is yes, you can age beer. Often, in fact, aging beers creates different, more mellow or complex flavors. Sharp corners get ‘sanded off’, fermentation continues, and much like wine the beer changes — often for the better. I have some beers laying down myself, and hopefully in a year or more they’ll be that much better.
Now, I know you have questions about this, so, without further ado, here is Duke’s Beer Cellaring FAQ.
Q: Where do I cellar beer?
A: Depends on where you live, but there are some principles to follow. What harms beer the most is temperature fluctuation, so you want someplace with a steady temp — preferably between fifty and sixty degrees Fahrenheit. The space should also be dark and relatively free from shock and sudden movement.
Q: What beer can I cellar?
A: A better way to answer this would be to say what beers you can’t cellar. First off, don’t bother cellaring anything that’s not in brown glass — the fact is, I don’t usually even bother drinking beer that’s not in brown glass, because both clear and green glass can cause a beer to be lightstruck and skunky in as little as fifteen minutes in sunlight.
I also look for bottle-conditioned beers. This means that the beer is bottled with yeast in it; this causes a secondary fermentation in the bottle which leads to richer and more complex flavors. If you cellar a bottle-conditioned beer, the differences over time add up, and often create an entirely new flavor profile.
The final sign of a good cellaring candidate is size. Cellar a big beer — one with higher alcohol and bigger flavors. Ideal candidates include porters, barleywines, Belgian strong ales, stouts, double or imperial IPAs, and other high-gravity brews. The magic number seems to be 10% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) — over 10% will definitely change and age, while 5-10% may or may not age and under 5 should be drunk fresh.
Q: So why cellar beer in the first place?
A: For the same reason I make chili the day before, if I can.
Letting chili, stew, or braised food sit a day lets the flavors mellow and mingle; my father used to call it ‘getting acquainted time’. The same thing happens when beer is cellared properly. Much like aging wine, the flavor changes. Generally, the sharp citrus edge of hops mellows and malt becomes more prominent; the texture of the beer can become creamier; flavor components break down and become more subtle. Also like aging wine, it doesn’t make the beer ‘better’ or ‘worse’ — it makes it different, and that difference can be an eye-opening experience for the beer drinker.
Many beers are starting to recommend cellaring; I have a bottle of Deschutes Abyss 2011 with a drink-after date of November of this year, and a bottle of Unibroue Quelque Chose that recommends drinking before December 25 — of 2025. I have also tasted three different years of Fuller’s Vintage Ale in a tasting flight and been amazed at the difference just one year of age made.
Q: Any other guidelines about cellaring beer?
A: The integrity of the beer is important. Make sure seals are tight, and make sure that the beer is fresh initially; here at the Twin Liquors Galleria, I keep constant watch to make sure the beer that my customers are buying is as fresh as possible.
There is a strong difference of opinion on whether beer should ‘lay down’ , on its side like wine, or be cellared standing up. In practicality, I think there’s no question capped beers should be cellared standing up. Corked beers, on the other hand, may age differently based on the position they’re laid down in. Try both, and see which one you like better?
Finally, this is a hobby for the patient. I have four or five beers laid down right now — I don’t expect to drink any of them this year, and some may be held for five or more years before I crack them. Everything good takes time, and cellaring beer is no exception. If you want more help finding beers that will age well, come on out to the Galleria and say hi!
Until next month, keep your head up, your lace delicate, your malt toasty, and your hops snappy.