At some point, it became clear to me that I was buying more beer than I was drinking. When I find myself in a liquor store with a great selection, I can't really help myself, and so I end up with a collection of beer that is growing faster than I can drink. And those 5 gallon batches of homebrew didn't help either!
Thus began my beer aging experiment! I don't have a ridiculous program here, but my beer cellar has been growing. Sometimes by default - I bought too much beer, so it has to sit in my basement (or my fridge) until I can get to it. I know, that's a good problem to have, and I'm not complaining. But I've even started doing some intentional aging, and my initial experiments came to fruition this past holiday season.
But this is a long process, so my experience isn't exactly comprehensive. Being a huge nerd, I've read a lot about the subject and I figured it'd be worth exploring my strategy on what beers to age and when to crack them open.
- Alcohol Content: The higher the ABV, the better the beer is suited for aging (and the longer you can age it). In my experience, super high ABV beers (i.e. beers above 12%) taste very "hot" when they're young. As they age, they mellow out a bit. Lots of people will say that those uber-strong beers are undrinkable until they reach a certain age, though that's not usually something I've found to be true. That being said, my experience with the 14% ABV Samichlaus is that the extra time in the bottle really does make the beer more palatable. My tiny sample of a 2003 Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA had clearly matured and become more complex than the fresh stuff. I've also tried some lower-ABV stuff (notably Anchor Christmas), which seemed to go ok, though it didn't taste that much different to me (of course, I had no comparison in that case, so it's difficult to tell). That being said, the general rule seems to be that beers less than 5% aren't really suitable for long-term aging. What you want are big beers like imperial stouts, barleywines, and big Belgian beers... stuff that'll get you truly sloshed on a single bottle, basically.
- Bottle Conditioned Beer: Beer that has been bottled with live yeast is much more likely to change over time. The yeast is still alive and processing the beer, so the beer will continue to evolve. A lot of Belgian beers are bottle conditioned, and some American brewers have experimented with this sort of thing. Dogfish Head's Squall was a bottle conditioned version of their 90 Minute IPA, and it was quite good! This is also why a lot of homebrewed beer gets better over time, as the yeast is still evening out the beer in the bottle. Anxious newbs like myself often post on homebrewing forums about how bad their beer turned out, but a lot of advice basically amounts to giving the beer some time (which personal experience shows is probably a good idea). I also see a lot of people noting that their best bottles of homebrew were the last few in the batch.
- Dark Colored Beer: Everything I've read indicates that darker colored beers age better than pale beer. I've looked around for a scientific explanation for why this is so, but I haven't really found much (other than hops, which will get its own bullet below). My guess is that dark beer contains much more flavor elements, whether that be from various forms of toasted or roasted malt, or specialty adjuncts like caramelized sugars, etc... Anyways, dark colored beer like stouts, barleywines and Belgian strong dark, quads, etc... seem to be ideal.
- Malt, not Hops: Beers that rely mainly on malt for their flavors age much better than hoppy beers. Hop flavors and aromas break down quickly over time (and since so many pale ales rely so strongly on hops for flavor, perhaps that's why pale beers don't age so well). Again, Belgian beers seem to do well here, as they're very malt-focused. As are most stouts and Scotch ales, and lots of other styles. IPAs... not so much. Anecdotal and accidentally discovered evidence seems to indicate that this is true. I had a bunch of Founders' Centennial IPA a while back, but I let one of them sit a bit too long in the fridge. It was fine and I had no problem drinking it, but it was definitely much better when it was fresh.
- Barrel Aged Beers: These beers take on big extra flavors when aging in the barrel, and beers aged in a barrel tend to become a bit stronger (as some water evaporates or soaks into the wood - the "angel's share" if you will), which also helps out. With time, all that flavor starts to blend together and become more tempered with time. I haven't experimented with this very much, but I've definitely had some barrel aged beers that could have used some extra time to mellow out. Then again, some beers are almost perfect right out of the barrel. I've got a few of those aging in my basement though, so it's something I will certainly be experimenting with...
- Smoke and Spice: I don't have a ton of experience with aging these, but I'm really curious to try some of these out after a while. I know I've read that smoke can act as a preservative in beer, and in my experience, that smoke character is usually overpowering in a young beer. My hope would be that putting some age on a smoked beer would let that smoke mellow out, while harmonizing it with the other flavors in the beer. Spiced beers are another question mark for me. I presume the spicy aromas and flavors will fade with time, but in some cases that could be a good thing (I'm thinking that overspiced pumpkin and holiday beers might benefit from that age). I've got a few spiced beers squirreled away for next year, so I guess we'll find out!
- Wild Ales, Sours, and Lambics: These beers tend to be bottle conditioned and/or barrel aged, so it stands to reason that aging would work well with them. Apparently some of Cantillon's lambics will age well for over 20 years (despite being only 5-6% ABV). Beers with Brettanomyces (a wild yeast) and other bacterial bugs (like lactobacillus and pediococcus) will continue to evolve as those critters do their work in the bottle. SOur beers have never been my favorite, but there are certainly a few beers I'd like to try aging...
- Storage Conditions: Basically, a dark, cool place. Light is the enemy of good beer (light breaks down the compounds contributed by hops, resulting in lightstruck or "skunked" beer), and high temperatures tend to speed degradation. In terms of temperature, 50 degrees F seems to be ideal, though everyone stresses the need for a constant temperature over anything else. Also worth noting is that storing beers upright is important, especially for bottle conditioned beers (as the yeast should be settled on the bottom of the bottle).
- Maturation Waves: Martyn Cornell sez: "Experiments suggest that the maturation takes place in "waves", so that a beer which is in fine condition at, eg 30 months may have deteriorated at 36 months, be back on form at 42 months, deteriorated again at 48 months and so on." I have no real experience with this, but I will say that some of my homebrews seem to go like this. I'll have one and it's great. A few months later, I'm not so impressed. A few months after that, I'm amazed at how good it is. This one is a bit troubling, as it sorta means that I'm ruining some beers, but I guess I'm willing to take that risk...
- Wildcard: And finally, I'll probably age some random beers just because I want to see what happens with them over time. Or because I forgot it was sitting in the back of my fridge. Or because it's hidden somewhere in my basement. Who knows, maybe aging a questionable beer will pay off.
- How Long to Wait: The big question! It obviously depends on the beer, but my goal for purposefully aged beers is to buy multiples of the same beer and try them on a regular interval (once a year seems like a good idea, though the "waves" of maturation gives me pause for some beers). In other cases, it will be a bit more haphazard.