While it is true that most beer is best served fresh, there are some brews that can actually improve with age. The best beers to age are ones that are barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned, strong or sour.
Not all types of beer are suitable for aging. Hops are the first component of a beer to break down, which starts within a few months of cellaring and will significantly impact the aroma and flavour of the beer. IPAs, defined by bright hop aroma and bitterness, should always be served fresh. Pilsners should also be consumed straight away, as their delicate hop aromas and crisp flavours quickly fade over time.
It’s no surprise that barrel-aged and bottle-conditioned beers are prime candidates for further aging. Barrel-aged beer tends to mellow and tannic astringency becomes less pronounced with a little age. Bottle-conditioned beers contain active yeasts that are integral to the ongoing maturation process. A bottle-conditioned sour, like a gueuze, will become less acidic over time, allowing for flavours like fruit and funk to shine through.
Typically, changes that occur as a result of aging beer are subtle, but significant. Many aged beers become more balanced over time – sours will taste less acidic, roasted malts become less acrid and beer with higher ABVs become less “hot”.
Most cellared beer is best with a little age, but you should be careful not to leave it for too long. Some beer enthusiasts suggest shelving beer for at least a year and believe that most brews will taste best at three years. Of course, this is a general guideline and you’ll have to find out for yourself.
It’s always a good idea to buy a few bottles of the same beer and age for different intervals, but remember to store your beer bottles upright. Lying a bottle on its side leaves a huge surface area where yeast sediment has contact with beer, which can significantly alter its flavour.
Aging beer is hardly a precise science – open something too early and you may be disappointed that the flavours are not as nuanced as they should be, open something too late and it may taste like wet cardboard. If a beer tastes really great, just drink it. Have fun cellaring beer, prepare yourself for some failure, and enjoy the wonderful surprises too!