Why, How, and Which Beers
By Dan Belfry and John Buck, Brewbicle
As the creators of Brewbicle, we come across two common questions: “What kind of beer can you age, and how do you do it?” and “You can age beer?” The answer to the latter is, “Yes, you certainly can.” The answer to the former is a bit more complicated and has a little nuance to it. We’d like to address the inevitable “what and how” when it comes to aging beer.
Let us start by saying that, while we have a wealth of experience aging beers, we aren’t experts, and we rely as much as anyone on the advice, research, and science of experts and their published works. If you’d like to see where we are grounding our advice, please visit the “Cellaring 101” tab at www.brewbicle.com, where we point you to some serious beer gurus and scientists who explain in greater detail the process and chemical reactions of aging beer.
What kinds of beer can I age?
There are a few criteria to consider when selecting a candidate to age:
1. 8% ABV or higher.
2. Malt-forward flavor profiles (i.e. not hoppy beers), as the chemical compounds found in hops are some of the first to die off. If hoppy is what you liked about the beer to begin with, aging will surely disappoint you.
3. Be wary of adjuncts such as fruit, vanilla and coffee, for the same reason listed in point #2, as these will diminish over time. This isn’t to say you won’t prefer these flavors mellowed out a bit. Just know that if you really like the coffee in KBS, you might want to think twice about aging it.
4. We recommend buying three of any candidate, drinking one fresh and sitting on two for later consumption. If that isn’t possible, be sure to select something that is available year-to-year and do a vertical tasting once you have three vintages. Building a vertical is a great way to highlight the evolution of a beer for you and your friends.
5. Styles which are most common and garner some great results include: Stouts, Imperial Stouts, Barleywines, Old Ales, Strong Ales, Scotch Ales, Porters, American Wild Ales, Dopplebocks, Tripels, Quads, Belgian Strong Ales, Lambics and Flanders Reds.
There are exceptions to all of these guidelines, but this list is a great starting point. Aging is about some experimentation, as not every beer that meets the above criteria is a candidate for aging, while some that don’t meet these criteria will be. But that’s part of the fun as you discover what works best for you.
How to age beer?
There are three key considerations when aging beer: UV exposure, temperature consistency, and bottle orientation. Bottle safety and inventory management are also important to consider when beginning your beer cellar.
Ultra violet light (or ultra violent light, as we like to think of it) is an enemy to beer on many levels. Think of UV light as the proverbial bull in the china shop and avoid exposure at all costs. Unlike your fancy Ray Bans, brown bottles do not block 100% of UV light. These rays, which shoot in at 299,792,458 meters per second, are damaging to the chemical compounds found in hops—destroying chemical bonds changing molecules, and creating skunky, off flavors. Especially over long periods of time, UV exposure will ruin your beer. It is worth noting that fluorescent light sources also emit UV and your bottles should be protected from them as well.
There are many opinions on good cellar temperature. What can be agreed upon, however, is that whatever temperature you can achieve, your cellar needs to stay in that range. Consistency is crucial and wild temperature swings are undesirable because they wreak havoc on the yeast present in the bottle. Sizable temperature fluctuation doesn’t make for a comfortable environment for yeast, which if subjected to repeated drastic changes will die and therefore will not be able to continue metabolizing and evolving your beer. That being said, many of us do not have a fully climate-controlled cellar. A basement or interior closet will suit cellaring needs quite nicely. While these locations may experience temperature changes, the change is incremental, and occurs over long periods of time, allowing yeast to adjust accordingly. Most people can agree that an acceptable cellar temperature falls in the 50-60°F range.
The third and most controversial topic is bottle orientation. We’re going to try our best not to incite people, but it is clear what side of the fence we fall on when you take a look at how the Brewbicle will hold your beer. We won’t diminish those that think otherwise, but we will explain why we believe what we do.
When aging beer, you want to minimize exposure to oxygen. First, by keeping the bottle upright, you limit the amount of surface area that is exposed to oxygen inside the bottle. Second, keeping moisture away from caps is always a good idea, as metal is prone to corrosion when exposed to moisture and oxygen. The idea of laying a beer on its side to keep corks moist has roots in the wine industry. With the use of synthetic corks, keeping the cork moist is not as necessary. Beer is mostly corked with compressed champagne style corks, which are more resistant to shrinking in dry environments. Storing bottles in the upright position allows sediment in the bottle to settle, so when you dig that cellar gem out years down the road, you can pour a clean glass of beer. Last, household climate controls have done a good job regulating humidity in our homes and preventing exposure to long stints of low humidity, which often causes corks to dry.
This is a topic of great concern. As a beer collector, one of your greatest fears is be woken in the middle of the night by a horrendous crash, as your weekend Home Depot project of years past collapses from the weight of a carefully stocked cellar. Additionally, you would not want to dig through old cardboard boxes, only to pick one up and have the bottom fall out, spilling that sweet, sweet nectar all over your socks. For the love of Beer, please keep your bottles in a secure place, and one that is deserving of your years of effort finding and buying the right bottles.
Give some serious thought about how you are going to track these beers over the course of many years. How will labeling ensure correct vintages on your bottles without dates? How will you schedule and decide when to open certain vintages? These are important questions, and ones to consider to maintain a well-organized cellar. Think of your cellar as a shrub. Without pruning, it will become an overgrown mess. If shaped and molded with the utmost care, you will end up with a Snoopy-shaped shrub cellar which will be the envy of anyone who ages beer. Having access to a multitude of beer vintages you can readily share with friends and family will provide an experience unique to your home cellar—and something your guests will always remember.