Andrew Hoenig is the Beverage Director at the Ginger Man, located in Norwalk CT.
So winter came and went. Actually, it never really got here, did it? And I bet you’ve got a few “big” bottles of winter beer left over. What to do, what to do…I have a suggestion that involves not drinking that leftover beer. There are many beers out there that will last for years to come, some improving with age, much like a fine wine. So start a vintage beer collection!
Let’s clear up any confusion about when in the life cycle is the best time to drink your beers. Truth is, it entirely depends on the style of beer. Lagers and Pilsners demand freshness, as do any light bodied and low alcohol ales. Traditionally you are encouraged to drink these beers within the first 3 months of their life. Most hoppy beers will lose their best bright citrusy aroma and bitter flavor characteristics over time, yielding a relatively flat tasting beer behind. So, if you get your hands on some Ithaca Flower Power IPA bottles, drink ‘em up!
What are the best beers to cellar, you ask? Keep it simple – light beers, short shelf life. Just don’t do it. Robust and higher alcohol beers yield a longer shelf life, given proper storage methods. Stouts and barley wines are best with age. Seek out those that are bottle conditioned (with yeast present in the bottle) for best results, but as long as you are resting a beer that has plus 8% alcohol by volume, you’ll be in the clear. Belgian styles (Lambics, Tripels, etc.) are also good to age based upon their complexity, even if the Lambic doesn’t have a huge ABV (alcohol by volume).
Let’s go over a couple other simple rules when it comes to aging beers. Keep them out of the heat and keep them out of the light. I rest my bottles in a small dark space under my basement stairs. There are a few different temperatures to mature your beers at, but most are just fine in the 50-55 degree range. Higher ABVs need slightly warmer temperature for aging. When it is finally time to drink your aged beers, drink them at cellar temperature for the best combination of aromas flavors.
Over time you’ll notice that while the alcohol is still present, it mellows out quite a bit, allowing some of the other flavors and complexities in the beer to shine through. I recently drank two vintages of Brooklyn Monster Barley Wine side by side. One was fresh off the tap, no more than a few months old. The other was a bottle specially released from the brewery’s cellar for a beer dinner. It was a well aged 2005 vintage. Same recipe, 7 years difference in birth, clearly two different flavor profiles. The young one was hot with alcohol, yet delicious and aggressively flavored. The elder had mellowed out and softened, and turned nutty and port-like almost in that it had sweet raisin-like qualities.
Hops, being a natural preservative for beer, often confuses people. Traditional IPAs should be consumed fresh. Yet there are extremely well hopped beers out there (see Dogfish Head 120minute IPA) that are intended to be rested. It actually says on the bottle “ages well.” Dogfish Head’s Olde School Barley Wine label even gives a short story on what to do with the bottle when you get your hands on it, but I’ll let you investigate that on your own.
The best part of aging a beer you can get your hands on every year is drinking them side by side (by side, etc) to see how time has changed them. For this reason, I highly suggest purchasing three bottles of each you intend to cellar at a time – one to drink fresh, one to rest, and one, well you just never know when you’re going to need another.
Let me know what you’ve decided to rest, and if you already have a vintage beer collections, drop a line and let us all know about your successes and failures!