So You’ve Got a Cellar...Now What?
A Tutorial on the Aging of Beer
Craft Beer Introduction
April 28, 2005
Written by JorisPPattyn
And now, you want to fill it, with all those marvels you have read about on Ratebeer, and have started to taste. You might even have heard of the legendary Dr. Bill, or, if you’re travel-inclined, have visited the Antwerpener pub called “Kulminator”, where the beerlist seems to be by vintage years, rather than by breweries.
But somewhere, you’re not that sure about it all. What do you want to stock – for whom and for how long? So – how to go about it? We all know wines can be cellared for years – some even say it is the idea behind wine full stop. But is it so for beer as well?
Good thing that you’ve stopped a bit to do some thinking. For indeed, not all beers are meant for cellaring. In fact, very few are, really. Same for wine, just try to age that Beaujolais Nouveau the guy with the Aston Martin went fetching . After one year, this fruity concoction might be too acid to use as salad dressing.
But it’s more than that. With a few exceptions, beers develop some specific tastes by aging, that are seldom sought – or found – in beers coming out of a brewery. In Belgium, brewers have a specific name for it as well: “Biscuit”. It is meant derogatory, make no mistake. Most important, you would be well-advised to search out old beer elsewhere first, to see if you really like them: the beers that taste like ‘biscuit’, ‘walnuts’, ‘portwine’, ‘stale sherry’, and more of that ilk.
Having, in the way things go sometimes, aged beers of all different kinds. I will speak from that experience, as well as from the fact that I have been searching old beers out of preference. Yes, I do like those strange tastes meant above. Maybe you do too. But you might have to adapt.
What IS aging?
By time going by, the beer inside your bottle present chemical changes. They can be of very varying kind, but in general, they can be described as: oxidizing. The presence of oxygen in the bottle – just as the component of the trapped air, or in more complex chemical forms. This has led to the erroneous belief that oxygen is the big enemy of a beer for keeping. That this is not true, will become clear later.
Do all beers age well?
Obviously not. I will point out which categories, as well as which “contents” might single out a beer fit for aging – or just not.
Well then, what do I look for?
First of all, think of all chemicals (in the best meaning of the word) that can be regarded as ‘preserving’, and you’re way ahead.
Alcohol is the first that springs to mind, and right it is too. The higher the alcohol content of a beer, the better it will age. The higher this ABV/ABW, the more a beer will behave as a spirit. Once over 22%ABV, very little will happen in your beer: the alcohol simply preserves the state of things. But, just as in wine, in lower alcoholic beverages, the alcohol can play a much more subtle role. One of the chemical processes, possible in beer – and this starts in the lagering tank at the brewery – is the forming of esters. An ‘ester’ is the combination of an alcohol and an (organic) acid. Esters are very aromatic components. Many fruit tastes are largely attributable to esters. Beware. As nice this ester formation can be, it is also a very delicate balance; the reaction can be reversed too, usually with much less desirable results.
With those few words, I have pointed out some more things to look for. First of all, if we say “alcohol”, we usually think of the stuff called “ethanol”, which is the normal alcohol found always in beer, wine, spirits. But it is by no means the only one. The molecules called “higher alcohols” or “fusels” are a kind of alcohol too. Some of them are even harmful, but some aren’t, and they are very prone to ester formation. The best esters are usually made from higher alcohols. Fusels are very volatile, meaning they disappear out of your beer given half the chance. Fusels are often found in very dense beers of the top-fermenting kind, or wheat beers. They have, however, the reputation of causing hangovers; whether this is actually fact remains to be proven.
As adept at preserving as alcohol are acids. In fact, an acid is an already oxidized alcohol, looked at in an organochemical way. The stronger the acid, the better it preserves – sounds familiar? In that way, acetic acid (vinegar) is an excellent preservative. Yet, and I might surprise you if you’re a staunch admirer of sour Belgian beers, acetic acid is seldom regarded as desirable. Some Flemish browns sport it unabashedly, but even in a lambic/gueuze, one can state that the acetic level should NOT exceed identifying threshold – which is pretty low for the stuff.
Another very good preservative is citric acid. But, unless I have to relearn my biochemistry, this could never appear naturally in a beer; if you taste it, it’s added.
The same is true of ascorbic acid. It is often added to beer (especially in Scandinavian countries) as an antioxidant. This might sound horrible – but given the fact that this stuff is more commonly known as Vitamin C, you can dismiss the idea that it would be harmful.
The most wanted acid in beer is lactic acid. It is the highlight of Lambic, Gueuze, Oud Bruin, Saison and more of those. But also of Berliner Weisse, and more contemporary American tries at new styles. It certainly tastes less aggressive than acetic acid.
There are more acids that can help: malonic acid (sour apples, wine), but also the fruit acids, freely available in (real) fruit beers.
Before I go on, explaining the good things, first something on the bad.
OK, what is it I don’t want?
Very strangely, hops. Well, not exactly – the above is a boutade, I admit. But – especially for the lovers of the big IPA’s – that’s the thing that simply DOESN’T remain. Hops are added – apart from aromatic/bittering goals – to shield beer from harmful influences as bacteria or wild yeasts. And so they will. But the aromatic components of hops are not very stable. Even worse, when submitted to light (fotons, to call it in a big way), they break down, releasing components that might not be harmful to your body, but usually are badly perceived by your mucoses that do the tasting/smelling in your nasal and oral cavities. If you read the terms “skunked”, “moufette”, “cat’s pee”, but also the more accurate “valerian” or “blackcurrant leaf” – or simply “lightstruck”, this is what the maltreated hops have done.
The kind of bottle you age has also a big influence; it has been said before and I will repeat it. The darker the bottle the better. A brown bottle will protect your beer better than a green one, and a clear glass bottle is an abomination. Chances are high it is already lightstruck before it ever gets into your cellar.
So – I don’t age an IPA?
No, that’s not what I said. Certainly a big IIPA is more than robust enough to gain complexity from careful aging – just don’t expect to find back that gorgeous fresh hops-smell and -taste of the young beer.
Another strange thing is… sugar(s). I see your disbelief. What is jam, again? OK, there you have it. No (palatable) beer has ever a sugar content high enough that it might figure as an osmotic barrier again harmful agents. Instead, the more sugars a beer has, the more prone it is to attract all kind of unwanted beasties. Which is not saying that sugar would be unwanted in our beer-to-age.
Now here’s what we absolutely don’t want: infection. Bacteria, yeasts, that weren’t there in the mind of the brewer, but got in somehow. What IS infection, is told to you by Josh Oakes in the tutorial on bad beer.
HEY! Whatever nonsense the lawgiver will ever print on your bottle, NEVER believe you will get ill from a beer with an infection. The worst to expect is a serious bout of diarrhoea.
I do not like this. So far I need a ‘beer’ that is pukingly acid, and makes me drunk in two gulps flat!
Calm down, I haven’t finished by far. Yes, sugars are prone to become prey to bacterial attack, but in essence, they are the food for your original, intended yeast. Yeast – fresh, living yeast, is what we crave most in our beer to be aged. Indeed, the slow secondary or even ternary fermentation of the sugars in the bottle by the yeast, is what will most likely give complexity and unsurpassed depth to your beer in time. They will excrete, apart from extra ethanol, all kinds of complex molecules as a result of their normal lifecycle that you will be able to appreciate as hitherto unexplored flavours.
It is therefore, that I denied oxygen the role of the big unwanted. If you want your yeasts to perform, they will need a little oxygen to get started. Actually, the little amount of air trapped in the bottle during the bottling will do admirably. I will have to add a little extra to that remark later.
You haven’t said anything about the colour of my beer. I’ve heard that dark beer…
is better for aging, I know the tale. And I’ve got serious doubts about that one. Pale beers can age as admirably as any dark one. Saisons, gueuze’s ARE mainly lighter coloured beers. Where the tale springs from? Two possibilities. First of all, when we think of a dark beer, we somehow conjure up the quintessential barley wine: rich, alcoholic, malty but with a good dash of hops for preservation. And God knows what herbs. All elements for greater complexity AND preservation. Of course, that type of beer is meant for aging. No wonder it fares better than your average pilsener.
And on top of that, the colour of the beer might play a role in its sensitivity to light – but that ought to be the role of the bottle. And you know by now you should keep your beer out of the light. Recently brewers told me that indeed, the melanoidins , dark colouring substances from either the malting or the cooking, form ideal molecules to form aromatic components in aging beer. There is, thus, a real ground for preferring dark beers; which is still not saying that all blond beer DOESN’T age well.
Shouldn’t you have started with that, BTW – darkness, etc.?
Maybe. No reason to postpone it any longer. I keep talking about a “cellar” because that’s what we associate with aging. But you might find yourself living on the 52nd floor of a skyscraper, and the cellar being a metrostation, really. OK. If you have a sufficiently large volume of ‘room’, which is not heated, nor lighted (near) permanently, neither too dry or too wet, and aerated at least to some extent, you can use it to age your beer.
A lot of beers, good for aging, are corked, rather than crowned. A cork can dry out very fast in an atmosphere too dry and too hot, non-aerated. Hence the importance of some humidity. But neither too wet, too. Crowned bottles, with metal caps get easily rusted through. And a fully saturated humidity gives opportunity to all kinds of unwanted moulds. They start with the labels, but won’t stop there.
Which brings me to another unwanted beastie. At least in Belgium, there exists a kind of insect (that obviously doesn’t need any daylight) that loves corks. It lays eggs in the corks of your precious bottles, which will yield small glazy worms, who dug through your cork. If they attain its full length, your bottle is a goner.
Last, remember to extinguish the light, when you leave…
OK, I’m going to dump the bottles in the cellar – eeeh! Do I put them upright, or lay them carefully on their side?
Good. You’ve asked the $10,000 question. Experts have been bickering on this for the last few decades, if not longer. One thing’s easy. A bottle with a metal cap, no cork, is ALWAYS kept upright. Unless you want the rusting to be accelerated.
There’s not much reason nor rhyme in a bottle that is both corked and capped. In theory, they have the advantages of both systems – but with none of the supposed N° 1 advantage of a cork-stopped bottle: its breathing capacity.
Cork stopped bottles are the bone of dissention. More and more people staunchly refute the idea of the drying-out of the cork by keeping them upright. They claim the liquid in the bottle will prevent the cork of drying out, even when upright. The pressure will be buffered by the trapped air under the cork, and less chance of the cork coming out under pressure. BTW, for that last problem a metal strap (called muselage) will prevent most disasters.
Yes, but. The best preserved bottles I’ve ever witnessed where those where the yeast has deposited itself in a kind of V or herringbone pattern on the underside of the laid-down bottle. In this way, the air – carrier of the ambiguous oxygen - is distributed the most evenly over the whole length of the bottle – or the fluid. The yeast will more rapidly devour the oxygen and exchange it for more desirable carbondioxide. A bottle with a mass of protein-polysaccharid-yeast deposit on the bottom, will very easily yield cloudy beer by the lightest of shaking. The yeast having deposited as described above, is much more prone to display side-sticking properties whilst pouring.
And most important IMO, brewers of Lambic and other such styles have been lagering the big Champagne-type bottles for 1˝ centuries by now. They lie them on their side. They ought to know what is best for their product, no? So why would we want to know better?
If you decide to lay them down, however, make sure the corks are NEVER tilted downwards. If the beer has enough pressure, the extra aid of gravity will often result in a leaking, or even empty bottle. I know, I have had scores of those.
A leaking cork must be a write-off, sure?
Strangely, no. Especially beers that keep fermenting for years, as traditional gueuze or saison, can develop enormous internal pressures. But a good muselette will not yield.
Again speaking out of personal experience, I have opened bottles that had lost 2/3’s of their original content, but the remaining third still had pressure enough in the bottle, to serve me a perfectly, if somewhat short, pleasure of a rare aged beer.
Now, what ARE those tastes?
I’ve mentioned most in the intro. A beer will first oxidize towards sweeter vinous and nutty notes. It might end in portwine like flavours. The wineworld calls this, aptly, the madeirisation. Pasteurised beers, as well as very non-sweet beers, will go towards dryer, sherry-like flavours. But a light, pasteurised beer will, after a relatively short time, display in first instance flavours that might remind you of cardboard, wet paper, mould and other unpalatable associations. It might be your perception, but it might be simply the truth. There’s very little point in keeping these beers for any longer – unless you go to extremes (talking about 20 –30 years). To be truthful, I’m still experimenting with those.
If your unpasteurised, unfiltered beer yields these cardboard flavours, something else is amiss. Your beer might be infected, it might be too old already – or only just starting, and not having reached some kind of balance – or you might just not like it. Up to you then, what to do. However, there’s one more possibility. Yeast, as pure as it can come, can die off, for varying reasons. Autolysis, as this process is officially known, can result in off-tastes, cardboard, but especially sulphury. Little chance that will ever better.
So; Barley Wines, Lambics, Saisons, Imperial Stouts, big Trappist Ales…
Essentially, yes, those are best. There’s some things I ought to add. Lambic contains wild yeasts. They will keep attacking sugars to the last little granule. An old lambic/gueuze will therefore have much less body than a young one. This has led to the erronous belief that lambic/gueuze would be beneficial for diabetic patients. That, of course, is overlooking the ethanol...
Strangely enough, an old gueuze, especially of the fruit variety, is not necessarily more sour than a younger one. It has been said, though never proven, that especially Brettanomyces yeasts are capable of using organic acids as substrate (=food), rendering the beer LESS sour. I have had samples of this.
Another detail. A thing which might shock you in those last beers is the appearance of "ropiness", the slimy aspect of Saccharomyces viscosus. NEVER pour those bottles in the sink, the opened one excepted. Put them in the farthest corner of your cellar, and leave them there for another 3, preferably 5 years. This infection always clears out naturally, leaving the beer with a marvellous "Champenoise" pearling afterwards.
Fruit beers are good for aging too, then?
Not really, no. Just as with hops, the freshness of the fruit will be lost quite fast after the first few months. If you’re looking for the fruitiness, go and drink them now. More so, a lot of fruits as cherries and raspberries loose their colour with time – even in a completely dark cellar.
But an aged fruit beer can be a very nice experience too. Less fruity, but with a sometimes superb “restaroma” of the used fruit, and complexity of the aging, with lots of unusual esters…
This is a logistical nightmare! I still don’t know for how long to age.
Ayee, that depends a bit on your funding. If you’re Croesus, or Dr. Bill, (and have a cellar like the vaults at Fort Knox), buy a palette of anything you come by, and taste a bottle every two months of everything. After a dozen of years, you know what you like, and you can start buying a crate of every succeeded experiment, to be drunk at the time you thought it top. Tough for you if your taste is developing in the mean time.
If you’re on a somewhat more realistic budget, buy the things which will obviously age best (strong, dark?, heavy beers) and try them carefully once in a while. You can always go further later.
And remember what I told in the beginning: search out places where they can offer you an aged drink, and see what you think of it. Beware, this can be a costly experience as well.
At least one thing. A PIERCED cork, crown, or whatever, means a bad bottle. As I’ve said, a sealed bottle can never harbour pathogens. An exposed bottle can, however. Mind you, even the most tarred smokers’ nose usually will ring all alarms if you sniff the liquid sloshing out of that bottle.
Joris P Pattyn
Very helpful, thanks.47 months ago
Great article !!!76 months ago
An exceptional article.76 months ago
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By time going by, the beer inside your bottle present chemical changes. They can be of very varying kind, but in general, they can be described as: oxidizing.
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