So You’ve Got a Cellar...Now What?
A Tutorial on the Aging of Beer
Craft Beer Introduction
April 30, 2009
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 app
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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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