Being a craft beer fan is not just about enjoying great beer. It is also about being involved in a community and learning more about the beer. One area that many want to learn about is the practice of aging craft beer; also known as cellaring. Aging craft beer is the process of letting a beer sit for a period of time before consuming. The goal is to allow the beer to change and reveal new flavors over time. New craft beer fans probably find aging craft beer a little odd but there are good reasons to wait before drinking. And if you are interested, it is not too technical to get started.
Here are three questions to ask before you start to make sure you are headed in the right direction.
The first step is to know what beer to age. Not every beer is going to age well. In fact, very few will age well. Almost all beer is made to enjoy fresh and the brewery released it at a time that made it good for drinking. Pale ales, IPAs, pilsners, lagers and many other styles are going to be best within 90 days of packaging. Any longer than that and the beer will have lost its intended flavor.
But there are some beers that are either designed to age or at least will stand up well to time. Aging craft beer is a trial and error process but selecting the right style will help increase your odds of success.
So what can you age?
- Barrel-aged – Beer that has been aged in barrels that were originally used to make bourbon, whiskey, rum, tequila, wine, etc.
- “Big” Beers – Anything over 10% ABV falls into this category. The higher the alcohol level, the better it will stand up to time in the cellar.
- Sours – This style of beer is exposed to elements that turn it sour. This bacteria can cause the beer to continually develop years after being bottled.
- Brettanomyces – aka Brett is type of yeast that can be used in beer. It is common in Belgian styles and sours but is being used in other styles as well.
Of course, you can age any kind of beer but just be aware that results will vary. Low ABV, hoppy, or light bodied beers can only stand a few months of aging. The high ABV, heavy, or barrel-aged beers can go years without issue.
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Cellaring or aging craft beer is not a tricky process but there are a few things to know.
Picking where to age your beer is critical. As the name cellaring implies, it ideally would be in a cellar which is dark and cool. These are the two characteristics that should describe the place that you choose. Basements are ideal but not everyone has one. So do your best to find a spot that will have little to no light and stays around 50 degrees year round. Many will use a closet to store their beer since it is dark area.
Humidity is also important but without a dehumidifier/humidifier to control it, this is often difficult to control. For many, they will not want to purchase additional equipment to monitor the humidity.
It is recommend that you buy three bottles when aging craft beer. Drink one now so you can establish a base for what it tasted like fresh. The other two should be enjoyed at different time points in the future. For example, drink one now, one in 3 years and one in 5 years. Have a plan based on what type of beer it is and what feedback you can find about that specific style. Label the bottles with the date that they were bottled if the label doesn’t list it. Each time you open one, take notes and save them. This will help you compare and understand the changes. Also, serve the beer at the temperature that it was stored.
Unlike wine aging; aging craft beer should be done standing up. When it is on it’s side, the yeast is unable to collect at the bottom of the bottle which makes it easier to pour when it is time. Being on its side also exposes more surface area and causes oxidation. The exception is beer that is corked instead of capped. Most prefer to store their corked beer on its side, much like wine, to ensure that cap does not dry out over time.
You can get very specific with cellaring; including monitor temperature, humidity, etc with additional equipment. A cool, dark space will achieve the results that most craft beer fans hope to get.
I listed this last because I wanted you to understand the what and how before I ask the most important question.
Why do you want to try aging craft beer?
Craft beer is typically bottled and released when it is ideal for consuming. So if you are going to cellar beer, you should know what your intentions are before you start. Here are a few topics to consider.
Did someone tell you that the beer would taste better in a few years? In most cases, this is just an opinion so make sure the source is someone that has been aging for a while and really understands the process. And just because one beer aged well, doesn’t mean another of that same style will.
Do you think aging craft beer makes you a better craft beer fan? I know many avid craft beer fans that do not get involved in aging craft beer. They understand the benefits but also understand the risks and believe that drinking it fresh is best. So don’t feel that aging is a right of passage for craft beer enthusiasts.
Are you really interested in how beer changes over time? Some flavors will fade which allows others to come forward. Barrel-aged stouts often will loose some of the heat which allows other flavors to stand out. Sours and brett beers can have dramatic changes over time and vary based on the style. Hoppy beers will see a decreased hoppiness and increase in malt characteristics. If you want to learn about how this happens then aging craft beer will be a lot of fun.
Please be aware that the beer could go bad and at that point it is a complete loss unless you enjoy drinking terrible beer. So age with purpose, don’t do it because you think it makes you a better craft beer fan.
My View On Aging Craft Beer
Do I get involved in aging craft beer? Not really, I have a handful of beers that are between 1 and 2 years old but they are there simply because I either bought too much or haven’t found the right time to break it out. This is especially true of a few barrel-aged beers that I want to drink with friends and family. Writing this is actually a great motivator for me to get those beers out and drink them sooner than later.
I believe in the craft brewers and their ability to release beer when it should be drank. For many, the aging process is all part of the craft beer experience but it doesn’t have to be if you prefer to drink beer fresh. For me, I want to enjoy the beer when it tastes best and most of the time that will mean drinking it while fresh.
Let me know what you think about aging craft beer. Do you age beer?
If so, what’s your process and how do you know when to drink it?