Do You Have the Patience to Age Your Beers?

Don't try this with Pabst.

It's official: I now have more bottles of beer in my cellar than I do wine. It all started when I found a forgotten case of Anderson Valley Brewing Company's winter seasonal ale buried under my Rhône reds. The beer dated back at least two years, and I couldn't even remember buying it. When I popped one open, I was hit with a tawny port aroma that smelled like figs on fire, along with a scent of graham crackers so pure, my inner 5-year-old gasped. I had liked the beer, but never this much. I knew in theory that some beers could age well, but let's just say I never had the patience to practice. Bee in bonnet, I went out and bought multiple bottles of my favorite rich ales to stow and check for similar results. What I found was that aging beer takes the edge off carbonation and hops, rounds out sharp corners, and deepens flavors. For the majority of beer, however, fresher is better. That's why the giant breweries tout concepts like "born-on dating" (a phrase that never ceases to creep me out). Dating the time of bottling appeals to our shrink-wrapped culture, obsessed with maintaining the freshness of everything. But as with cheese, champagne, or anything fermented with yeast, beer is alive—or that's how I and many other beer, cheese, and wine nerds see it. Foodstuffs that are alive can evolve, but the cool thing about aging beer is that some of these bad boys need less than a year to grow into something special. To go about picking beer for aging, follow these simple guidelines: There's no time like winter. Many domestic breweries put out winter seasonals, and these ales rely heavily on malt and usually possess a light sweetness. Sugar helps beer age, since it feeds the yeasts that cause the yummy changes, and malt contributes the most to the rich, sumptuous tones of a well-aged beer. Winter beers also carry extra alcohol, another factor that boosts and expands a beer's profile when it ages. If you're looking for age-worthy beers, shoot for more than 7 percent alcohol by volume. Look for a cork or the phrase "bottle conditioned." If it's cork-finished, chances are the bottle is an ager. I could bullshit you about why this matters, but I'll just say "cork" usually means "craft beer" usually means "not-so-sterile filtering," meaning the brewer left some good yeasty bits in the bottle. Just like fine champagne, these little bits will continue to change the beer's flavor over time. Bottle-conditioned beers are beers meant to finish developing in the bottle and absolutely have the required yeasty bits to make for wonderful aging. Avoid pasteurized beers. Lagers and pilsners are the root of our freshness obsession because once bottled, they have gone as far as they'll go tastewise, except downhill. Not that there's anything wrong with pasteurized beers—they're just a different kind of animal. In general, darker, richer beers have the best odds of aging. Age beer just like wine, only not as long. As with wine, keep beer at a constant, cool temperature. A dry Northwestern basement is still the world's best free wine cellar. A wine might age as gracefully—and for as long—as Sean Connery, but beer? Not so much. As little as six to eight months can bring an entire new world of odor and flavor to a craft brew, while many great wines suited for aging take at least five years to come around. Only a few rare beers, such as very high-alcohol strong ales or barley wines, will age well past five years. Incidentally, that case of Anderson Valley only cost half as much as one bottle of my Châteauneuf du Pape. At those prices, any man can afford a cellar of majesty, if he sticks to humble beer.

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