Spring is here – at least that’s what the calendar says. For me, spring means cleaning, dusting off the shelves and in general, clearing out the gray left by the long, cold winter. While preparing for a white-glove inspection at Formaggio Kitchen this year, we happened upon two curious cases of beer. They were filled with an assortment of barley wines, sours, and stouts from 2010 and 2011 that had been stashed away by one of our previous beer buyers. Old beer? Why, of course!
Cellaring beer is a hobby of mine. It started with barley wine. The deep caramel notes on a snowy winter night fill the body with a pleasant warmth. Barley wine is high in alcohol content, with some varieties measuring as high as 13% ABV. These are not summer thirst quenchers, and are best sipped and shared. I started my collection with a six-pack, shared one bottle, and stacked the rest in the basement. Then, I bought another four pack… As my collection grew, it expanded to incorporate imperial stouts as well. Though their flavor profiles are vastly different from each other, both can benefit from extra time on the shelf, unlike hop-forward IPAs, pilsners, and ambers.
Aging beer is more of an experiment than a hard science, though there are some guidelines to prevent outright failure. First, is the cellar. Where the beer is stored should have a fairly constant temperature, preferably between 50º-60ºF (much like wine). If you do not have a cellar, a cool, dark place with minimal temperature fluctuation would work (a corner in the basement, the back of a cool closet, or even a shelf in the pantry). Bottles should always be stored upright, this allows sediment to sink to the bottom and eliminates the need for decanting the bottle. If the beer is sealed with a cork, the cork could impart “off” flavors to the beer if the bottle is resting on its side. Another reason to keep your beers standing tall is that the surface area of beer exposed to oxygen within an upright bottle is smaller, which slows the oxidation process and makes aging the beer easier.
Next, you get to choose the beer! In doing so, remember that you are not looking for instant gratification, you want something that can withstand the test of time. As a general rule: the higher the alcohol content, the longer it can age. As beer ages, it slowly oxidizes and the amino and hop acids degrade, yeasty esters decrease, and toasted malt characters move to the forefront. As a result, styles that benefit from these processes tend to be maltier: barley wines, imperial stouts, lambics, sours, imperial red ales, and some saisons. Most of these styles have a lifespan of 5-8 years, while some sours and lambics (such as a Gueuze) can stay capped for decades.
I suggest tasting your beers at intervals. Start with four and six packs to make this easier. Drink one bottle immediately. You will want to take notes (and avoid the temptation to drink another) and put the rest away. As the beer ages, the bitterness will dissipate. This flavor marker is a remarkable tool for determining how long the beer should remain cellared. In six months to a year, taste another one. Take notes. If you don’t like how the flavors are trending, don’t hold onto it — drink it. If you do like the subtle changes, leave the rest on the shelf and come back in a year. As your beer gets close to 5 years old (and older) it has greater potential to impart stale cardboard flavors. This, unfortunately can sneak up on you. Once your beers start celebrating these birthdays, consider whether the flavors will benefit from more oxidation. If you taste it at 6 years old and it is in its prime, or the bitter hops have disappeared entirely, you may not want to let it rest any longer. If you taste it and there are still bitter notes on the tongue, the beer might benefit from another year or two in the cellar.
Apart from the wonderful aged selection we found in the basement which is just now going on sale, we have a number of new releases on our shelves that I am excited to add to my cellar as well. The People’s Pint 2013 Imperial Stout promises luck – the Alström brothers of BeerAdvocate.com fame give this beer a rating of 100! [Due to the limited supply, allocation is one per person.] It is thick and rich with notes of chocolate and roasted coffee beans. I can’t wait to try it in a year to see how it matures! White Birch’s 2014 Indulgence Ale (a Belgian style stout) pours smoothly into the glass with a bright foamy head. Surprisingly light on the tongue for a stout, it is filled with roasted cacao bean flavors, and a hint of salted chocolate. Another intriguing one is the Hel & Verdoemenis. This stout offers a viscous pour and its deep amber/black color dominates the glass, while a very minimal halo of foam coats the edge of the surface. At this age, it is considerably bitter for a stout, but I predict in 3-5 years it will delight with well rounded toffee and burnt caramel flavors swirled into a rich and creamy body.
If you’re more interested in stashing sours and lambics, we have some of those to play around with too. Jolly Pumpkin’s La Roja, a wild ale produced in the Flander’s tradition has great potential in the basement. Yeasts will succumb to bright notes of sour cherry, berries, and an underlying essence of oak. Duchesse de Bourgogne, delicious at anytime, will also be patient on the shelf. Or, try one of the 2011 vintage Red Poppy Ales from the Lost Abbey. Taste for yourself the benefits of aging! The potential for beer in the cellar can be as deep, cavernous, and delicious as that of ports, wines, and even cheeses. Cheers!
Note: please contact Teddy, our Beer Buyer, with questions about available brews, ordering in large quantity (or in advance), and other general beer questions. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole Roach is a keen kitchen experimenter, beer enthusiast, and a member of the produce, register, and operations teams at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.