Maturing Beer

No, this not a post about going all ‘Pygmalion’ on drunken frat boys to give beer a more sophisticated reputation but rather a blog on cellaring beer. Recently, I was having a conversation with friends on just how long to store some of my speciality beers. While it has become somewhat common knowledge that high alcohol and/or casked beers can be matured much like wine less seems to be known about the best time to uncap these bottles. If left too long can you ruin a perfectly good beer? Is there a peak time to ensure optional taste? Following our conversation my friend called my attention to Coates Law of Maturity. The law states that a wine will maintain its optimal drinking qualities for a period of time equal to the time it took to reach its optimal state.  For instance, if a wine matures to its peak in five years, it will stay at its peak for five years before its quality begins to degrade. So I decided to do a little research into optimal aging times for beers.

First things first, what can go wrong with a beer if you store it too long? According to Randy Mosher author of Tasting Beer, beer is never a fixed thing it is constantly evolving and sadly for the majority of beers this change is not good. The mortal enemy of beer is heat. Flavour is the first thing to leave the bottle; oxidation means the hop aroma dissipates, malt dulls, bitterness declines and fruits fade and all this happens in five to six months (beware there is no standardization on marking best before dates). For the vast majority of commercial beers this is the equivalent of a taste death sentence. Luckily there is a caveat here since some beers are meant to be aged and the stronger the beer the longer they can reside on your shelf. General things to look for in a potential candidate for aging include high ABV (7% and up), bottle-conditioned beers, lambics and sours, barley wines and any beer with a best after date. An interesting historical aside, Mosher mentions an eighteenth century English custom of brewing an extra-strong ‘double’ beer to celebrate the birth of a son, and then to drink it when he reached the age of majority at eighteen. The diagram that follows is a reproduction of the aging table given in Mosher’s book:

Beer Type Alcohol Percentage Maximum Aging Time
Belgian Dubbel 6.5-7.5 1-3 years
Belgian Tripel 7.5-9.5 1-4 years
English or US Strong Ale 7-9 1-5 years
Belgian Dark 8.5-11 2-12 years
Imperial Pale/Brown/Red 7.5-10 1-7 years
Barley Wine, Imperial Stout 8.5-12 3-20 years
Ultra-strong Ales 16.26 5-100 years

So what’s in it for me? Those same processes that wreak havoc on your average lager can bring about a whole new level of complexity to your cellared ales. As it ages the beer will become less sweet and more vinous (taking on the characteristics of wine). As mentioned earlier, fragile hop and floral notes dissipate allowing malt to come to the forefront. Oxidation then adds a leathery, nutty or sherry-like layer of flavour.  The yeast component of bottle-conditioned or live beers undergoes a process called autolysis as it breaks down, which imparts a meaty or umami element (too much can be not so good, think soy sauce). Mosher answers the why age question nicely, “The brewers who make great beer for us put their hearts and souls into it. Let’s honour that artistry by doing all we can to bring it to the table in a way that allows it to really shine”.

*Thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coates_Law_of_Maturity and Mosher, Randy 2009 Tasting Beer An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink.

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