Drinking a three-year-old beer seems strange at first; just as eating a three-year-old anything seems strange. Americans are conditioned to check the “best by” date on nearly every food we buy. Buy now and buy fresh! Yet we all know that some specific wines get better with age, some bourbon is better the older it is, the best cheese is always aged and fruitcake lasts forever. So the question of the week is: Drink beer now, or later?
As with most of life’s conundrums, the answer depends. With the amazingly diverse beer now available in Arkansas, we feel it’s appropriate to set the record straight, and lay out some generally agreed-upon ground rules. Aging beer is one of the most fun, rewarding, and biggest tests of temptations for a beer geek. Let’s keep it short and simple. No rule is absolute. Consider the following rules and generally agreed-upon directions for aging beer:
Rule #1 – The hoppy stuff is not for aging. IPAs and Double/Imperial IPAs are like white wines – they are meant to be imbibed as fresh as possible and as soon as possible. The longer a hop-centric beer lies around, the more hop flavors disappear. In contrast, some malts can greatly change and attain more flavor depth with age.
Rule #2 – Light is bad. Light causes a chemical reaction when it shines on hop compounds in beer (remember nearly all beer includes hops). If enough light strikes a beer, these compounds change the delicious spicy, fruity, and/or herbaceous nose of a beer into one that resembles a skunk. Take any green or clear beer bottle, (these bottles/colors do not shield the light waves that cause this reaction) pour a beer, and take a whiff. You’ll smell some skunk in there. This is generally not wanted in craft beer.
Rule #3 – High ABV. It is generally agreed that beers that benefit from aging normally have higher ABVs, such as 6% or higher. This may be because higher-alcohol beers normally stand up better to age as the alcohol mellows out over time, allowing a more complex flavor to shine through. It should be noted that some (mostly Belgian beers) can be very low ABV, and age amazingly.
Rule #4 – Yeast, man. You may be confused after the last sentence stating some low ABV beers age great, even though we said aim for 6% + ABV. That’s because of yeast. Try to make sure your beer is “bottled conditioned” – meaning it contains live yeast. These yeast will continue to develop flavors as the beer changes over time. Some yeast – which may be propertiary or even wild – can develop a beer for decades. This is very common in particular Belgian beers like Gueuze. Yeast is truly the soul of a beer.
Don’t consider these absolutes, rather, general rules. One of the most important things in beer culture is HAVE FUN! Experiment, wait (if you can!), and enjoy! With aged beer comes more nuance, flavor, and enjoyment. Normally well aged beers won’t be punching your flavor palate, but rather weaving a intricate and interesting story.
Next up on part two: temperature, corks, types of beer to age, and vertical tasting.