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Starting a beer cellar: which beers should you age?

Some beers, like the Belgian-style brews from American craft brewers Allagash and Ommegang, will age nicely under the correct conditions.
Some beers, like the Belgian-style brews from American craft brewers Allagash and Ommegang, will age nicely under the correct conditions.
Photo by Scott Olson

Now that you’ve had some time to process the idea of “vintage” or aged beer – and indubitably decided to start your own beer cellar – let’s discuss some guidelines to help you figure out which beers are suitable for cellar stockpiling, and which beers you should buy just to drink fresh, out of the fridge, without any preamble.

Beer is wonderful in that good beer is always good when fresh – brewers aren’t known to release products that require aging to reach their flavor peak. (Wines are a different story.) However, some beers develop in interesting ways over time, and if you’ve tried a beer fresh and think it might be a good cellar candidate, go for it – just keep these aging guidelines in mind (and remember they’re not hard-and-fast rules). Generally, a beer will age with aplomb provided it is:

1. High in alcohol. Alcohol acts as a preservative, as you know if you’ve ever stumbled across a four-year-old bottle of Jagermeister from your college days – not that bad! (Well, at least, not much worse.) High alcohol content aids in flavor stability over time, but can also contribute to interesting flavor development. Generally, the higher the alcohol content, the longer you can age said beer. Many people use 8 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) as a baseline for cellar-beer alcohol content, although there is some wiggle room as long as you don’t keep lower-ABV beers for too long.

Some notable exceptions to the high-alcohol rule are sour or “wild” beers, such as Belgian lambics or krieks and American “Brett” beers. These beers use hardy, eccentric cocktails of wild yeast (including one popular species found naturally in Belgium, Brettanomyces, or “Brett”) and bacteria for fermentation and are usually unfiltered, which gives them a long shelf life, even with low alcohol contents.

2. Malt-forward, especially with toasted and roasted malts. Barley malt, like coffee, can be kilned and treated in countless ways during its creation, resulting in a dizzying array of potential colors and flavors in finished beer. These range from golden-hued and cracker-like (like a pilsner), to tawny and caramel-laden (amber or brown ales), to pitch-black and rich with flavors of coffee and chocolate (see: stouts and porters). Using more malt in a given volume of beer will typically result in a higher-alcohol beer, although there will usually be more residual malt sweetness and character as well.

Beers that use large amounts of caramel malt, such as barleywines or old ales, or large amounts of dark and roasted malts, such as imperials stouts or porters, will age in interesting ways due to the complex, highly developed flavor and aroma compounds derived from the malt. Lighter, more delicate beers without highly kilned malts do not usually have as much to offer in the flavor-development department.

3. Not hop-forward, at least not without a sturdy malt backbone to balance. This might sound confusing, but in general, beers that are hop-forward – that is, where hop flavor and aroma is the star of the show, with the other ingredients in supporting roles – are not suitable for aging, and in fact, should be consumed as quickly as possible. Hop flavor and aroma compounds break down quickly and often in undesirable ways, imparting notes of paper or wet cardboard and an overall stale aspect to the beer.

That being said, some barleywines and other beers with massive hop contents, such as Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine, age quite nicely and are considered classic cellar beers. However, these beers also have a massive malt backbone, and they usually feature hops mostly in a bittering capacity, as opposed to the relatively delicate flavor, aroma or “dry” hops used later in the brewing process. Therefore, as a rule, regular-strength, hop-forward beer styles – such as pale ales, IPAs, classic European pilsners and American amber and red ales – will not benefit from aging.

4. Bottle-conditioned, especially with Belgian yeast. Beers that are bottle-conditioned – that is, carbonated naturally with yeast and sugar in the bottle – tend to have a longer shelf life because the live yeast scavenges beer-spoiling oxygen in the bottle. These beers can also have a more exciting shelf life, as the yeast will continue to process malt sugars and create new flavors and aromas over time. This is especially apparent in Belgian beers such as tripels, quadrupels and other strong ales, where the characterful yeast helps create beers of astounding complexity. These strong Belgian beers tend to be excellent cellar contenders.

Now that you have an idea of what types of beers to cellar, next time we’ll talk about the optimum storage conditions and practices for beers with these qualities. Until then, leave any questions you may have in the “Comments” section, and don’t forget to “Subscribe” to receive updates on my new posts!

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