by Luke ONeil
| May 20, 2012
Once upon a time, beer didn’t get a ton of respect. But now the masses are more aware of the almost-infinite varieties and styles available, and connoisseurs (the technical term, I believe, is “beer geeks”) have started treating brews the way oenophiles treat wine. Of course, one of the biggest compliments you can pay to a wine is to not drink it — at least, not immediately. And though the average drinker may not realize it, you can age beer, too.
Aging (or “cellaring”) beer is still relatively uncharted territory, says Todd Alström of BeerAdvocate magazine, which hosts its fifth annual American Craft Beer Fest in Boston in June. Brewers have been blending aged beers with fresh ones for centuries, but recent years have seen an increase in interest among some amateur enthusiasts. “It’s like an extra hobby,” says Alström. “A niche within a niche.”
Since it’s a new idea for many, there’s an air of uncertainty to it. That’s part of the fun. “It is all experimental,” says Alström. No one knows exactly how beers are going to turn out months or years down the road.
Of course, there are a few ways to control the process. You’d need to devote your life to the study of beer to capture all of the nuances, but according to Alström, here are the basic variables to consider when aging beer: temperature, light, and the angle of storage. Experts disagree on the angle issue, but Alström recommends storing all beers upright (rather than tilted like a wine bottle). Temperature-wise, 50–55 degrees generally makes for good conditions.
Okay, but what about those of us without an actual cellar? No problem. A dedicated fridge works, as could any cool, dry, dark space. (Think about how excited you’ll be if you forget about your experiment and find it a year later when you finally get around to cleaning out the closet.)
When your beers are stored under the right conditions, the maturation process takes over and oxidization changes the beer over time. (In other words, as more oxygen interacts with the beer, various science mumbo-jumbo happens, and the flavors evolve.) You might end up with something a lot smoother, or something with sherry notes to it. The aging process might mellow out a high-alcohol beer. It might just ruin the beer. It all depends on what you choose to age in the first place
“In theory, you can age any beer,” Alström says. “Whether or not it’s going to come out good is another story.”
Sure, it’s an inexact science, but there are some characteristics that suggest a strong candidate for aging. Higher-alcohol beers tend to work well, since alcohol acts as a natural preservative. Bottle-conditioned beers — beers with live yeast inside the bottle — are another good option, as the yeast will continue to consume residual sugar over time and allow for more interesting variations. And darker beers are also particularly well-suited for aging, says Alström, who points to styles like Russian imperial stouts, American double stouts, sours, and Belgian lambics. On the other hand, super-hoppy beers (like a double IPA) don’t benefit much from aging. “The whole purpose of the beer is that it’s hop-forward,” explains Alström. “The hops will dull down over time, or sometimes you’ll end up with funky, off flavors.”
That unpredictability is partly why the idea of aging beer remains a bit controversial — many beer geeks simply think beer is meant to be enjoyed fresh, while others are excited about the possibilities of aging. Here’s a compromise: open one now, and save one for later. Much, much later, that is.
THE AMERICAN CRAFT BEER FEST
The fifth-annual fest will take over the Seaport World Trade Center (200 Seaport Boulevard, Boston) on June 1 and 2. It promises to be a beer-geek nirvana, with representatives from 120 breweries and more than 540 beers to sample (though it’s probably not a good idea to try them all). About 15,000 attendees are expected, and the fest may sell out, so order advance tickets ($45) at beeradvocate.com/acbf or chance it for $50 at the door.