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The vast majority of beers are best enjoyed as fresh as possible, but a select few styles possess qualities that will allow the liquid to positively evolve when carefully stowed away. The resulting new array of flavors isn't better, mind you, since that’s a loaded word -- but different! Similarly, you wouldn’t say that I’m better looking than Channing Tatum (though I am, objectively) -- you’d simply say I’m just different.
Plenty has already been written about how to properly store your beer for an extended period of time, but we’re much more interested in exploring whether you should, or should not cellar your beer in the first place. We spoke to Certified Cicerone and beer/food pairing expert Jensen Cummings of Brewed Food to learn all about the pros and cons of aging your suds.
Pro: It provides you with beers to trade (and enjoy) with friends.
Let’s face it: as delicious as your fresh-hopped session IPA may be, it likely won’t carry as much trading value as a rare barleywine discontinued seven years ago. Cellaring allows you to build a valuable collection with which you can barter for other hard-to-come-by gems. Not to mention the fact that there’s nothing like spending time with friends. (Or Friends. Love you, Phoebe.) Cellaring gives you the opportunity to open some special bottles you’ve been saving with a big group of pals.
Pro: It makes high-alcohol beers not so burny.
Calling a beer “burny” as it slides down your throat may not be a technical term, but it gets the point across. If you’ve ever sipped a 15% ABV beer that doesn’t hide its booze so well, you know what we’re talking about. Time can help mellow that out. “It helps for beer [to be cellared] for a small amount of time to let the alcohol subside and integrate,” Cummings explains. Some of his favorite beers to age are from Boulder, Colorado’s Avery, which offers a slew of high gravity beers like the 17.1% ABV bourbon barrel-aged Uncle Jacob’s Stout, and the 17.5% ABV pumpkin ale aged in rum barrels called Rumpkin.
Pro: You can experience some of your favorite beers in new ways.
One of Cummings’s tips for cellaring beer is never to buy just one beer. (We like the way he thinks.) “I buy three to six of whatever beer I want to age, and I drink one every year,” he says. “And every year I discover something different from it.” In some small way, you get to be an amateur version of a professional barrel-master: you’re tasting aging beer, and trying to figure out when it hits peak flavor.
Pro: It’s fun to brag.
C’mon, what’s the point of having a cellar full of beer if you’re not going to take photos of it, post it to Instagram, and make all of your friends jealous? A well-stocked beer cellar gives you serious bragging rights.
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Pro: Certain styles taste damn good after they’ve sat in a bottle for a bit.
“One of my favorite styles to cellar is any wild or spontaneous fermentation beer,” Cummings says. That translates to beers such as Belgian lambics (take your pick of anything from Brussels’ Brasserie Cantillon) or bigger (7%+ ABV) saisons (e.g. Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace). Other styles people love to age are imperial stouts (e.g. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout or Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti), barleywines (e.g. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot), and smoked beers (Germany’s Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen), as they all also taste delicious after some time in a cellar.
Of course, age does slightly different things to each beer style: For the lambics, expect more funky notes. For the stouts, you might find the oak character gets stronger, or discover vinous, sherry-like or port notes. Barleywines should mellow and oxidize similarly, with hops retreating even further, and malt flavors coming through loud and clear. And as for aging a smoked beer, expect the bottle to burst into flames upon opening it. Just kidding! Instead, those smoky notes might simply fade into the background and sweeten a tad.
And now, the cons of aging beer:
Con: Life is short.
The future is uncertain. Just drink the damned beer.