A number of years ago I put together a post about ageing beer. This post grew, as did our cellars, and eventually the post turned into a dedicated cellar page. At the time, Chris and I were each starting to develop our own cellars and we didn’t know what to expect as our collections grew older. Not being a patient person makes stocking a beer cellar a challenge, but a number of bottles remained untouched in a cool dark location for a number of years. Having raided most of my cellar, I have come to a realization – ageing beer may not be all it is cracked up to be
The idea of ageing beer was exciting when we first started, and it still is to some extent. It is a gratifying feeling to have the patience to let organic chemistry change and develop a bottle of Old Cellar Dweller, prior to consuming it years later. Over the past year I watched my cellar peak and decline. And let me tell you, the decline of a beer cellar is the better of the two slopes. Sure, the way up is filled with excitement and mystery, but the way down is alcohol fuelled.
The most enjoyable aged ale experience was a vertical tasting of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. I managed to stow away a bottle of Fuller Vintage Ale each year starting with 2007. Chris was gifted a bottle of Fuller’s 2006 to finish off the collection from 2006 to 2012. My patience got the best of me, an the impending sale of my current residence rushed the tasting from what should have been during the cold of winter to the heat of summer. The group of tasters, Gavin, Chris, Me, and the women that come attached to us, got together to work our way through the Fullers collection last August. The tasting itself was a great experience, but I would be hard pressed to say that the 2007 was better than the 2012. Not that the bottle of ’07 was off, in fact it was very enjoyable, but it also wasn’t stand-out-excellent. Age didn’t seem to make the beer any better, it just made it different.
Does old beer taste better? No one really knows this, but I do not believe beer gets better with time, it just changes. The effect time has on beer still remains somewhat a mystery as the idea of laying down a bottle of beer (or sitting upright on a shelf) for an extended period of time is new. The market for old beer is small, but growing, and very little research on the topic is available. Most research is focused on how to slow the ageing process in an attempt to keep beer fresh longer. As beer ages it goes stale and it turns out some of these stale flavours are enjoyable.
When beer ages, existing molecules and flavour compounds that give beer its fresh taste degrade and other new compounds are created. With time, organic compounds within a bottle of beer slowly react with one another, changing the beer’s overall flavour profile and to some extent mouth feel. Many of these reactions are oxidative, and the general consensus is that too much oxidation will result in the development of cardboard like flavours. Keeping a bottle cool slows the development of assertive off flavours, such as the previously mentioned wet cardboard taste. While many stale beer flavours can be nasty, age does have the potential to improve the overall beer experience.
Organic molecules within beer are developed during the brewing and malting process. Poorly brewed beer will stale prematurely and is not a great cellar candidate. The off flavours found in poorly made beer will age-out, but during the ageing process many of these unwanted tastes will convert into an even more unpleasant off-flavour. Well made beer will fair much better as it ages, as will beer with a higher alcohol content and an assertive flavour profile. Big beers are typically cellared for two reasons: their bold flavour profile will help hide the inevitable development of off-flavours during a lengthy maturation period, and the intense, often imbalanced young flavours will dissipate as the flavour compounds degrade. The degradation of key flavour compounds is why aged beer is often times described as mellow or smooth. As beer ages, big flavours will fade away and subtle flavours, both pre-existing and newly created, will shine that much more.
My cellar is now very small and my mindset on ageing beer is far more short-term than before. I like fresh, hoppy, and assertive beer, all of which are not characteristics of matured beer. Aside from bottles with Brettanomyces, which is yeast that remains active for years, my cellar is quite small. A few bottles of big beer will sit for a few months in my cellar, but anything beyond this and I find the flavour degrades more than it improves.
There is a certain romance behind ageing beer that appeals to many dedicated craft beer drinkers. The mystery, uncertainty and the required patience makes many beer drinkers overly positive when it comes time to crack open a bottle. After a hard day of physical labour, even a poorly made sandwich will taste like heaven – effort makes the reward that much sweeter. The same may be true of aged beer. I believe that age kills most good beer. Very few bottles, even when stored correctly, benefit from an extended maturation period. However, this is the opinion of just one beer drinker. Ageing beer is still a mystery, it’s a new thing. So please, continue to age beer and see if you enjoy the outcome. Drinking beer should be fun, and if ageing beer is just that, please carry on.