Most beer, the grand majority in fact, is designed to be drunk fresh. Some beer, like fresh hop beers are best when they are literally just a few days old. The moment a beer leaves the brite tank it starts to age. Oxidation, hop aroma fades, malt flavors morph. Some aging is good, yeast still in suspension continue to eat up compounds that make off flavors like diacetyl and DMS. Most beer I would guess is probably at its peak after packaging about 2 weeks to a month and then it starts to go downhill.
Some beer however, does benefit from some age. People debate and argue about what beers are good to age and which aren’t but a few common themes do emerge. Dark malts tend to hold up better, so stouts, porters, barleywines tend to age well. Also lower hopped beers, since the hop flavor and aroma tend to leave pretty quickly and you’re left with just bitterness. IPAs do NOT age well. Trust me. Higher alcohol beers also tend to hold up to age. In fact, a little oxidation can take away some of that rough burn from that 14.5% Russian Imperial Stout. These beers almost NEED age to even be drinkable. Bottle conditioned beers (like Belgians and Trappists) with yeast still in the bottle hold up well to age since the yeast will continue to scrub out the oxygen in the bottle and prevent oxidation. Sour beers with non yeast cultures in them will do the same thing. Aging will also mellow some of the harsh acidity of some sours.
Through mostly good fortune, I’ve begun to amass a very small (emphasis on small with our tiny apartment) beer cellar. Most of the bottles have been gifts, judge prizes, raffle prizes etc but a few were purchased. Some I set away to age on purpose, some I actually forgot about and recently discovered but they all have a few things in common. Most all of them are barrel aged. They already have some oxidation from the barrel, so they aren’t really going to get “worse” in the bottle. Most of them are stouts or barleywines. Most of them are high alcohol. So they hit all of the criteria I mentioned above. Will they all age well? Who knows. I guess that’s part of the risk/reward circuit of it.
One beer that I do not have in my cellar but I would highly recommend is any vintage of the Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout. Yeah, I know, they are Evil Empire now, but all the more reason to find one of the older vintages if you can. I’ve had the good fortune, through friends, to taste both the 2006 and the 2009 vintages. The 2006 I don’t recall being overly fantastic. I’m sure it was still good, just not mindblowing. The 2009 on the other hand blew me away. It tasted just like a fresh 2014 I had at a release party 2 years ago despite being 7 years old. Black Friday (BCS Release day) is coming up next week and I’m hoping I can get my hands on a bottle (or two? dare to dream) but I’m not holding my breath. (UPDATE: I went out on Black Friday and was able to procure some BCBS Stout. I was able to get 2 bottles of the base stout, one bottle of barleywine and one bottle of coffee stout. Stay tuned for reviews/tasting notes on those).
If at all possible, one of the recommendations I’ve heard the most is to buy two bottles of something you intend to age. Drink one fresh, drink one a year from now. See how it does, how it changes. Of course the trick is remembering how it was a year ago. You can take notes, but I’m not sure that would convey all of the sensory characteristics. I’m excited to actually try this with a beer my wife and I both received as a judge prize at a competition. The Ecliptic Belmont Station 19th Anniversary Barrel Aged Barleywine. Since we got two bottles of it, I put one in the fridge and hid one in the closet. One to drink now and one to hold. Released on March 20th of 2016 this beer already has a good six months under its belt.
Another reason I’ve been holding on to some of these beers is because they are fairly special and I want to wait for the “right time” to break them out. Of course, there’s not going to be some magic time that all of a sudden my brain is like “Hey let’s break out the Deschutes Black Butte XXVIII”. I’ve realized with a few of them that the moment we break them open it becomes a special occasion.
Some of the beers I’m currently holding onto include:
2014 Firestone Walker Velvet Mirken (Barrel aged Oatmeal Stout)
Deschutes Black Butte XXVIII (2016)
Deschutes Collage II (2016)
Sound Brewery Old Scoundrel Barleywine (I think from 2014?)
Ruse Multibeast Brett Saison (2016)
10 Barrel 16 Barrels Pinot Barrel Aged Golden Ale (2013, pre InBev)
Cigar City Puppies Breath Porter (2014)
Quite a few of these were gifted/purchased already with some age on them, so I probably won’t hold them for much longer and I don’t have any fresh to compare to, but that’s partly the inspiration to beginning to build up the cellar. Now that I have some aged beers in my collection I can try my hand on aging myself in the future. There’s quite a few releases this time of year that I hope to get my hands on a couple bottles, again one for now, one for later.
I’ll do my best to take good notes and post some reviews on here when some of these special beers get uncorked. I’m gonna start making up “special occasions”.