Anyone who has opened that five-year-old bottle of Corona at the back of the fridge and thought, “Why not?” has learned that beer, for the most part, is something best consumed fresh.
Inside the bottle, things begin degrading on their own — a beer’s hoppiness fades significantly after just a few weeks. Outside the bottle, external forces like light, temperature and air have effects on the beer inside.
But that’s not to say some beers can’t be aged. In fact, there’s a wide range of styles that, like wine, can change over time and reward those patient enough to set them aside.
Books like Vintage Beer by Patrick Dawson are a great resource for understanding the science behind aging beer and choosing styles for cellaring. Absent that, a good rule of thumb is to pick stronger beers over eight per cent alcohol. (It’s an oversimplification, but basically the alcohol acts as a preservative.)
Unlike many wines, most beers suitable for cellaring are just fine for immediate consumption too. Aging doesn’t improve them, so much as it changes them. For example, the roasty, coffee-like traits of a big boozy Russian Imperial Stout can soften and sweeten over time, but both experiences are enjoyable in their own right.
“They can mellow out a bit, but sometimes that intensity is what people are looking for,” says Stephen Bezan, beer manager at Sherbrooke Liquor.
Like wine, you can compile “verticals” of some beers by collecting consecutive years of some annual releases. Verticals of Alley Kat’s Olde Deuteronomy barleywine and Blue Monk barleywine from Brewsters are staples in many local cellars, including mine.
“Vertical tastings are a lot of fun,” says Bezan. They’re an opportunity to see how a beer changes over time, or to pick out subtle differences in annual releases that get tweaked from year to year with different malt or hop additions.
While vintage releases and rarities are intriguing fodder for cellaring, Calgary beer writer Don Tse says aging regular production beers offers a unique opportunity.
With wine, annual changes in weather, sunlight and soil conditions mean different vintages will never be the same. However, consistency is important for beers in regular production: A five-year-old bottle of Chimay Blue (to choose one example) should have tasted the same when it was fresh as a bottle made this year. Tasting an aged bottle beside a fresh example provides a “head-to-head” comparison that wine can’t replicate.
Tse recommends buying a dozen bottles of the same beer, labelling each with an upcoming year and putting them aside until the designated date. “Labelling them also removes some of the temptation to drink them,” Tse says.
An actual cellar isn’t essential for aging beer, but a cool, dark basement is preferable. If you’re an apartment dweller, try somewhere with a minimum of exposure to light and removed from temperature extremes, like a closet away from exterior walls.
Out of sight, out of mind can help with willpower, but ultimately these beers are meant to be enjoyed. They won’t improve indefinitely, so keep records and do some research to ensure you drink them while they’re still on the upside.