What’s the deal with Aged Beer?
With so many breweries putting sell-by dates on their labels, taking outdated beers off shelves, and telling bars that if they choose to pour an outdated beer by their brewery to remove the label, then why is aged beer even a thing? I’m pretty new to beer culture myself. My education really began last year when I started working for Alpine Village. I’ve since learned about dozens of different styles of beer and how a beer’s recipe alone does not determine its flavor. I’ve learned that strange and wonderful flavors can exist within beers and that it’s common for beer drinkers to like and even seek out beers that taste like leather, grass, or barns. Mostly, I’ve learned that everything is according to a person’s individual taste. I, for instance, tend to lean toward maltier and yeastier beers and stay away from hoppy, bitter beers. I’ve learned that with aged beer, the aging is partly about preference and partly an informed decision. Like aging wine, aging beer can be a toss up.
Aging beer is not a new concept; brewers have been experimenting with time since beer was first invented. All beers need some amount of aging to become beer. The yeast has to work its magic and create alcohol. Still some beers require an initial longer amount of storage before they can be released at all. Carbonated beers are a good example. Brewers will have to store them, bottled, in a cool, dark place to allow the natural carbonation to occur. Aging beer can also create different styles out of one recipe. An Oktoberfest beer, for example, is simply a Märzen style beer that has been aged for around 4 months in oak barrels. Try the two side by side and you’ll taste how different they are.
Some people prescribe to the belief that the brewer knows best and that he places the beer on the shelf when it is ready to be drunk and not before, and for many beers that it is not only an opinion, but a steadfast rule. Many beers are bottled with freshness in mind. Those are the ones with strict sell-by dates and that tends to be the case with many craft beers and IPAs in particular. The rise and popularity of taprooms all over the country is happening because people want to be able to go to a local brewery and enjoy beer at its freshest. But that is not the case with all beers. Even brewers themselves will tell you that a beer they’ve bottled or kegged, while delicious fresh, might also change and possibly benefit from a little aging.
The reasoning behind aged beer is simple; People who enjoy beer for its flavors not just its alcohol content want to know and experience what new flavors can develop within a beer over time. That is precisely what aging does. Think of all of the flavor characteristics inside beer like neighboring clans. Some clans will rise up and defeat others, some will join forces and interbreed, some will die out over time, and others will thrive and advance. The flavors that tend to be associated with freshness like florals and fruits as well as that bitterness that IPA lovers crave are all likely to decrease over time, but other flavors within the beer will start to grow and develop more. Breadiness, wood characters, any smoky or earthy flavors, and characters of sweetness are all likely to increase with your beer’s maturity. Aging is also a gamble, while beer will not spoil with age, there is a chance that the best flavors of the beer may fade away or that the flavors that develop will not be good ones. That’s why choosing which beers to age is important.
From my study in aged beer, I’ve learned all the rules in aging beer and also that there are no steadfast rules. First, hops evidently do not age well, so most IPAs are meant to be consumed within 3 months of bottling or as fresh as possible. Stone Brewing’s Enjoy By is a good example of a beer that the brewers intend to be consumed quickly. We often have it here in our bar and if we still have some left over after the enjoy-by date passes, it is fun to invite people to do a taste test with a fresh batch of Enjoy By and the “expired” batch. You can definitely taste the difference and some people even like the older version better. It’s all about the drinker’s preference. There do exist IPA’s that claim to get better with age though. Dogfish Head Brewing’ suggests aging their 120 Minute IPA for 1-2 years. Another rule going around is that beers of higher alcohol content are good candidates for aging. Some people say 10% ABV and higher, some say anything over 7%. That rule is basically to steer you toward malt heavier beers like barleywines and imperial stouts. Other beers that benefit from aging are those that contain wild yeast like brettanomyces or brett for short. The wild yeasts are added to the beer after fermenting and are living organisms that can greatly affect flavor characteristics within a beer over time. Some beers that can be considered for aging are barleywines, belgian strong ales, gueuzes, imperial stouts, lambics, old ales, saisons, sours, and vintage beers.
At our 4th annual Kraft Bierfest December 4th and 5th, we’re going to be featuring and celebrating some fantastic aged beer. If you’re not sure if aged beer is right for you, this is a great event to try as many as you can along with other rare and limited beers from Craft Breweries around the country. Here’s a list of some of the beers that aged beer lovers will be looking forward to at the fest:
Abita Bourbon Street Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout (2014)
Ale Smith Decadence Barleywine (2014)
Allagash James Bean Bourbon Barrel Aged Triple (2013)
Allagash Odyssey Barrel Aged Belgian Dark (2014)
Angel City Barrel Aged Dark Rye Lager (2014)
Monkish Magnificat Belgian Christmas Ale (2014)
Stone Winter Harvest (2014)