Wine drinkers and collectors understand some bottles get better with age. To cellar and age beer, however, isn’t so widespread.
That makes sense, as the majority of beers are meant to be drank fresh. It can also be difficult to figure out what beers have aging potential.
“For a beer to age, it should be one of the three ‘S’s’: strong, sour or smoked,” says Patrick Dawson, author of The Beer Geek Handbook: Living a Life Ruled by Beer, and Vintage Beer: A Taster’s Guide to Brews That Improve Over Time.
You may have to hunt to find a beer that will benefit from a little extra time in the bottle. But Dawson says that’s become easier.
“There’s a lot of breweries that are holding onto beers longer, and particularly you see them in the form of barrel-aged beers, which I think sometimes people likely forget that those are vintage beers already,” says Dawson.
What are the benefits of aging beer?
Like an ageworthy wine, a beer’s characteristics will evolve over time.
In certain beers, “heavy roasted chocolate notes might become a little bit sweeter, a little bit more mellow over time,” says John Holl, beer editor at Wine Enthusiast. “There could be some new flavors that are introduced. Oxidation is certainly one where beer can start to take on a little bit of a Sherry or Port note to it, along with some other aromas and flavors as well. So, each beer is going to change differently over time.”
As with beer, most wines are meant to be consumed within a few months of purchase. But an ageworthy wine will develop new flavors, or secondary or tertiary notes, after it has spent some time aging. Just as a wine’s tannins grow softer overtime, so will a beer’s hops.
“Typically, time mellows flavors, time mellows aromas,” says Holl. “And so, if something is incredibly assertive when you have it fresh, expect it to be lessened or more rounded when you have it after some time. That’s part of the fun.”
If you’ve ever done a vertical wine tasting, then you know it’s an opportunity to see how bottlings can evolve over time. So, why not set up a vertical tasting with beer?
Holl recommends that you taste the beer you plan to age when it’s first released to have a reference point. That way, “you can open a bottle in a year, or five years or whatever, and just sort of see how it evolves over time.”
Few beers hold up to a year of aging, let alone five years or more.
“You see an enormous development [in beer] just between zero and six months and six months to a year,” says Dawson. So, stick to a shorter timeline.
If you don’t want to wait, another option is a barrel-aged brew like Sierra Nevada’s Barrel-Aged Narwhal. Then find the “fresh version,” such as Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal. Dawson says that the barrels will impart characteristics like oak that don’t have to do with the aging process, but it’s still an interesting comparison.
As in collecting wine, it can be difficult to find the so-called “perfect moment” to crack open that special bottle.
“I always tell people it’s always better to err on the side of opening [beer] too early rather than holding on,” says Dawson, “It’s the same with wine.”
If you’re unsure about a beer’s ageworthiness, ask someone at the brewery or bottle shop when you buy it.
“Unless the brewer tells you otherwise, it’s always a good idea to try to drink something as fresh to its release date as possible,” says Holl.
If you want to age a strong beer
A beer’s alcohol content plays a key role in whether or not it can age. So, according to Holl, you’ll want to find a beer that’s “8% [alcohol by volume] and above.”
Heavy, boozy beers include Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine, released annually in January. The brewery has even offered “vertical packs” of its barleywine, which allows consumers to try previous years along with the new release. Over time, you’ll notice that the beer’s hops mellow out and more caramel and toffee notes arise, according to Sierra Nevada.
According to Wine Enthusiast reviews, Sierra’s Barleywine is ripe for aging, with a “rich, malty core at first sip, but soon after transitions into hop fueled flavors of sticky citrus oil and pine resin that carry on long into the finish.”
According to Goose Island, it can be aged for up to five years, though you can also drink the brew immediately. If you age it, Goose Island says the brew will develop an “almond-like nuttiness.” You may also perceive notes of dried fruit and a “mellowing of perceived alcohol,” as the stout spends more time in the bottle.
Since these are annual releases, you could stock up on a brew, age them for different periods of time and sample them to see their evolution.
If you want to age a beer that’s not quite so heavy
If stouts or barleywines aren’t your favorites, look for “anything that is from Belgium and has the word lambic on the label,” says Dawson. Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is matured in oak casks, has great aging potential, he says.
While not a lambic, the “Rodenbach Grand Cru is sort of like a sweet and sour beer and it’s going to have more vinous qualities to it, much more fruity,” says Dawson.
Holl says that Belgian brewer Abbaye d’Orval’s lone beer has aging potential.
“That’s a brewery that’s been around forever with a style that is known the world over, but they figured out that five years is sort of the sweet spot for that particular beer,” he says.
According to Orval, the brew’s bottling date will be on the label, so you can plan when you want to drink it. The bottles are conditioned with Brettanomyces, which Orval says helps their brew evolve slowly over time. As their namesake beer spends more time in the bottle, you can expect it to become progressively “dryer” over time.
If you want to age something smoked
While a fairly divisive beer category, smoke was a common characteristic for hundreds of years as fire was used to dry malt, according to Ray Daniels and Geoffrey Larson in the book, Smoked Beers: History, Brewing Techniques, Recipes.
“Our Smoked Porter ages beautifully,” Andy Kline, communications manager at Alaskan Brewing Co. told Wine Enthusiast in an email. “The remarkable thing about how this beer ages is that it has little to do with alcohol content, which at 6.5% is not particularly notable. But those malts that we smoke over alder wood in a repurposed salmon smoker act as an antioxidant and thereby fight the oxidation that normally makes beer stale.”
Just how long can this beer age? Well, Kline says that’s an area for “intense debate” at Alaskan Brewing.
“During the first ten years of aging the smoke incrementally subsides and gives way to sherry, currant, molasses, caramel, leather, tobacco and brown sugar aromas and flavors,” says Kline. “Then, sort of miraculously, the smoke begins to come back and at 15 to 20 years it again becomes the dominant flavor and aroma component. So, I think between five and 15 years are the optimal aging times for this beer.”
Earlier Wine Enthusiast reviews state its lush palate “boasts a smooth and creamy texture, with immensely attractive flavors of malted milk balls, chocolate syrup, molasses and roasted coffee beans.”
Another option is Schlenkerla’s unfiltered Urbock and Eiche beers. This German brewery has been around for hundreds of years.
Both of these brews are only available in the European Union, “both [the] vintage Eiche and Urbock get smoother over time,” says owner/brewer Matthias Trum. “The malt character becomes more mellow and the smoke is not quite as dominant as in the younger versions. The hoppiness loses its sharp edge, but is still very present.”