One of the best aged beers I’ve ever had, I opened this one about a year ago. I have another from 2004 still in the cellar. Bottle conditioned means more yeast added during bottling specifically to help beer age (or at least keep) in the bottle.
In Part Two I talk about how you can tell when a beer won’t age, how best to age beer, give some informational links, and include some examples of beer that ages well.
It’s actually pretty easy to say which beers won’t age – Bud, Miller, Coors, or any light lager or ale that’s been filtered, pasteurized, or otherwise killed (the yeast I mean) will not age at all and will be skunk in about six months from bottling.
Beer without yeast in the bottle is basically dead and the six month clock is ticking as soon as the bottle is capped.
Lagers generally do not age as well as ales. The difference is (again) the yeast. Technically there are only two kids of beer: ale and lager. The difference is in the yeast used to ferment them. Lager yeast sinks to the bottom and does its work there, and at a lower temperature, 45-55 degrees.
Ale yeast rises to the top of the wort and works at a higher temperature range, typically between 60 – 75 degrees.
So if you find an unfiltered lager you want to age, you had better keep it below 55 degrees so the yeast won’t die. Aging ales is easier because you can keep them at warmer temperatures without risking killing the yeast.
And what is all this about yeast being alive? Yes, yeast is a living organism in the fungi kingdom, with 1,500 known species. Some species make good beer, some make good bread, some make good wine, some don’t. In the case of aging beer, if your yeast dies you are basically out of luck because the “suspended animation” level of yeast activity in a sealed bottle is what “ages” a beer.
If you are aging beer, think about conditions a mushroom would like. Yeast does not like too much light or warmth (and of course too much can vary by strain).
On its age worthy bottles, Stone Brewing advises a “cellar temperature” of 55 degrees or lower. I just put the bottles in the basement, where it’s reasonably cool all year, and don’t worry about it. I have not had a problem.
Yankee Brew News recently published an article about beer aging and quotes Ebenezer’s Pub’s owner as saying the less you disturb the beer, the better. I guess I will try to avoid putting beer in the fridge and taking it out again. I have never had a beer go bad from doing that, but Jen and Chris Lively should know, since they have some beers that have been aging for 100 years. (And yes, I do have a bottle of their Black Albert beer in the cellar, why do you ask?)
One of the best aged beers I’ve had is the De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva 2002. I drank it in 2009 and immediately bought another to age (which is still in the basement).
Another great one I recently had was an Allagash Curieux 2009. It was a highlight of a recent beer tasting in NY. After that I went out and bought five bottles of the 2013 to put down in the cellar.
In summary, you can get some clues from best by dates, alcohol content, and yeast type (perhaps most important yet hardest to get info about), but ultimately in the absence of clear information you have to take some educated guesses and see how they turn out
Dogfish Head has some useful advice on the topic, although I am not sure all of it is spot on. I drank an aged Red and White over the weekend (probably from 2010 or 2011), and it was phenomenal, despite the Dogfish blog’s characterization of it as something that won’t age well. Also they say malty beers tend to age better than hoppy beers, but that strikes me as overly simplistic. Malty beer without yeast in the bottle won’t age, and a lot of hoppy beer will.
I have a few Dogfish 120s in the basement. I wish Dogfish would put dates on their labels though. They stamp the bottles with bottled on dates, but either this rubs off sometimes or not all bottles have it. I am now not sure after the recent reorg of the basement which of my 120s is the oldest.
In the end a lot of the advice comes down to trial and error. It is certainly hard to know for sure what will age well and what won’t, although there are plenty of exceptions among Belgian style beers and others created specifically to age well.
One of the easiest and perhaps best experiments in the effects of aging beer is to buy a few bottles of Orval and drink one every six months. Orval changes that quickly, and keeps changing for a long time. Here are a couple of interesting links about this absolutely unique and fascinating beer. From the brewery here’s an explanation of how Orval is made, which is also a pretty good description of the brewing process in general. (And yes, I have some Orval in the cellar, why do you ask? The oldest was bottled in 2005, the newest this year.)
Here’s Charlie Papazian’s account of drinking 24 year old Orval in Belgium, which is kind of amazing, I mean to think this has been going on for so long in Belgium.
As a final note, yeast also dies when the alcohol it produces reaches a certain level, which varies by strain. But typically it’s around 13%. Any beer with an alcohol percentage greater than 13% or so (unless it’s a special yeast strain) is probably not really beer. That means you, Dogfish 120 (18%) and you, Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%). At least Brew Dog discloses they freeze Penguin and skim the ice to get the alcohol content that high. I have not heard what Dogfish does.
Oh yes, barrel aging typically also involves evaporation, which is why Bourbon County starts out at 11% and ends up closer to 15%.
Which also reminds me, I will need to write another post about aging – barrel aging in particular.