Friday, September 19, 2008

Time in a Bottle: Cellaring Beers

The Holidays and winter are right around the corner and that means one thing in the brewing world...... Big Rich high alcohol beers! If you're like the Doctor you like those big rich brews and want to stock up on these festive pleasures. Many are great fresh right from the tap or the bottle, but plenty of these brews can be aged to a sublime liquid ecstasy! I buy two or more of favorites! Drink one now and Cellar the other two and wait for the magic to happen.

Over the years, I've had beer fans ask me, "How do I know if a beer can be cellared?" Well, just like wine, some of these beauties can mature with age and become profoundly different and decadent. I find myself wading into the Wort cellar around this time of year to see what can be uncorked from past years. It's a nice way to clear space for this years big beauties and enjoy some incredible surprises....

Some of you are saying, "What the hell is Dr Wort talking about?! Beer is supposed to be drank fresh or else it goes bad!" Well, it's true that most beer is best enjoyed before the ravages of light, heat and time degrade its flavors and character, but some beers can actually improve over time, becoming more balanced and complex. All you need to know is which beers qualify for aging.

Most Commercial beers (Yes, even some of those brewed here in the North West) are heat pasteurized and filtered, which extends their shelf-life but makes them "unsuitable" for aging in your cellar. While pasteurization and filtering stabilize beer and destroy bacteria that are potentially harmful to its flavor, these processes also prevent beer from improving with time. We're not going to cellar those beers, it's a waste of time! We're going to cellar beers that are unfiltered and unpasteurized.... Maybe even have some yeast still in the bottle.

The Classic, Thomas Hardy's Ale, the quintessential beer for laying down. It even states this on the bottle, 'This beer can be stored for up to 25 years.' A bottle from 1995 tastes amazingly different now in 2008! It's been given time to maturate (Mature) in the bottle and the flavors have has time to mingle and contort into a completely different and wonderful beer.

Caveat emptor! There can be some risk in aging beers! While some will become incredible libations that dreams are made of, some can become rather disappointing, dry and or medicinal. Fermentation conditioning, oxidation, yeast and bacteria can play wonder roles in aging, but they can be the undoing of some beers! I'm hoping to remove some of the risk within this article.

**Some of the following has been adapted from an article from SARA DOERSAM wrote for the 'Southern Draft' back in 1997. I've used her article for reference. Thanks Sara for opening my eyes to cellaring beers!

OXIDATION, the exposure of beer to air, can have a detrimental effect on beer by imparting a sherry-like characteristic. This can be a good character or bad depending on the base beer style. In light lagers and the like, this would just sour the beer beyond drinking!

Beer enthusiasts have long debated what role bottle size plays in the maturation of beers. For example, how does the flavor of a vintage Belgian Scaldis Noel aged in a 25-centiliter bottle compare to the same beer aged in a 1.5-liter magnum bottle? In larger bottles, beer has less exposure to air in the head space relative to the total volume of beer, so the larger bottle reduces the risk of excessive oxidation. Nevertheless, while large bottles may be preferred for aging beer, given no other choice, I would not reject a beer well suited for aging just because it is in a small bottle.


When a beer is bottle-conditioned, meaning it is bottled with live yeast suspended in the beer, the beer continues to ferment in the bottle, all the while changing in character. As the yeast feeds on the residual sugars in the beer, the beer loses some of its body and becomes drier. Even after the yeast runs out of sugar to feed on, it contributes to beer's body, aroma and flavor profile. Still, it is not imperative that a beer be bottle-conditioned to be a good candidate for laying down. There are many beers and beer styles that improve with time despite a lack of live yeast munching away on sugar in the bottle.


As a rule, bacterial infection is not a desirable characteristic in beers that are best drunk fresh. Indeed, bacterial contamination can dominate a beer, rendering it unpleasantly sour and virtually undrinkable. The sourness is usually derived from wild strains of yeast or bacteria that hop aboard the beer as it's being brewed or fermented and wreak havoc on the final product.

But some styles of Belgian beers are highly prized for their distinct sour or lactic character. In particular, Belgian lambic ales employ spontaneous fermentation induced by wild yeast, which is allowed, indeed invited, into the breweries' open fermentation vessels. So while most beer is fermented with cultured yeast strains, many Belgian ales are intentionally fermented with wild yeast strains and influenced by bacteria which impart that lactic character.

If you question how lactic or sour beers could possibly taste good, consider gourmet vinegars, some cheeses, sourdough bread or yogurt all influenced by aging bacteria and appreciated by acquired tastes. Thus, in controlled conditions, that same sourness or lactic character can surely enhance some beers.


The temperature in which beer is stored or even transported plays an important role in its character. Cold temperatures abate changes to beer during aging; therefore, to reduce the effects of time on most beers, keep it cold. But if your intent is to transmogrify your beer with age, it is important to allow it to mature at cellar temperatures ranging from 50-65 degrees F with little fluctuation.

At these temperatures, the yeast, particularly in bottle-conditioned beer, is warm enough that it can remain active. If conditions become too cold, the yeast may slow down or become altogether dormant, and if too hot, the yeast may die.

Likewise, it is important to store your beer in the dark. Light can interact with the hops in beer, causing your beer to become light struck or skunky. Beer that smells like skunk is never inviting nor desirable.


While some of us love those incredibly Hoppy Piney resinous beers, all those hops don't always age very well! Balanced beers age better than over hopped beers, but that can be a matter of taste. Most high hopped beers have tendency to mature with the hops combining the bitterness and flavors into a rather medicinal, acrid flavor. At times the high hops will add to the maturity of the brew and dry out into the background. It can be a gamble with high hopped beers.

Barley wines, old ales, strong Scotch ales, strong Belgian ales are not as susceptible to the negative effects of bacteria. The flavors will melange rather than become off put.
Corked beers should be stored on their side, while crowned beers are best stored upright. As a rule, corked beers run a smaller risk than crowned beers of leaking at the seal. But corks can and often do impart a slightly musty, corky aroma and flavor to beers stored on their side, and I personally find that these factors contribute to a beer's complexity. When opening bottle-conditioned or corked vintage beers, be sure to cover the top with a towel and aim it away from yourself and your quaffing companions. Enough pressure may have built up in the bottle to blast a screaming cork ricocheting throughout the room.
Try to ensure that your beers are in good condition when you purchase them for laying down. Usually, your best bet is to buy them from a reputable beer merchant, preferably in brown bottles. Ask your merchant if the beers you want to buy are good candidates for cellaring.

Quick Check list for Cellaring

1. Generally beers over 8% alcohol.

2. Malty or complex Grain bill. Hoppy can be good or bad.

3. Bottle Conditioned with some yeast still in the bottle, but not always!

4. Belgian beers fermented with Wild Yeasts.

5. Cellar beers in a dark, cool place in the 50-65 degree range.

6. Corked beer is laid on it's side and capped beer, upright.

6. Buy quality beer that's in good condition! taste some before you cellar!

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