What happens to my beer when I age it?

What happens to my beer when I age it?

Storing beers in order for them to age is an increasingly popular practice, but can be misunderstood.

Cellaring beer is all about controlling the normal oxidative reactions that take place as beer ages. As with all chemical reactions, they accelerate as the temperature increases. If you refrigerate the beer, these processes will largely come to a halt. That is perfect for most beer, but it defeats the purpose of cellaring.

We recommend that consumers keep beer intended for vintage-aging in a cool, dark spot. Basements are ideal, but pantries/closets/etc. work just fine. Having the beer a little below standard room temperature allows for a slow but steady pace. Once the flavor profile is where you want it, either start drinking or put the beer into refrigeration so that reactions slow to a crawl, thus preserving the desired balance.

Only certain beers are candidates for aging. The alcohol percentage certainly plays a part, but the primary question you need to ask is whether the beer's flavor profile is sufficiently complex that it will undergo aging reactions that contribute positive flavors. The standard pale ale just doesn't have the complexity needed and is just going to end up tasting stale. Beers with an alcohol content of 8% or higher by volume tend to have the necessary attributes, but this isn't always the case.

There is also a difference between an extended shelf life and aging potential. For example, our Special Double Cream Stout is sturdy enough to withstand a solid year of life after being bottled before it begins to appreciably degrade. Nevertheless, it really won't develop interesting or new flavors as it ages.

Beers such as Third Coast Old Ale and Expedition Stout are different: many of the flavor components are pretty raw and unbalanced when they are first bottled. Over time, their flavors will blend and mature in interesting ways, allowing you to compare vintages in a vertical tasting. We feel that this positive maturation process continues for a good five years after the bottling date, and even then they have nearly unlimited shelf life remaining.

Another pitfall to consider is the phrase "bottle conditioned." There is a perception that bottle conditioned beers age better than their filtered counterparts. That is partially true: the secondary fermentation contributes some pleasant flavors, and the yeast population in the bottle absorbs much of the oxygen that would otherwise go down negative oxidation pathways.

The downside of yeast remaining in the bottle is that eventually it is going to die, and dead yeast cells are not positive flavor contributors. The key point, again, is whether or not the beer is complex enough to withstand that aspect of aging and incorporate it into the blend. Light-bodied or single-focus/unbalanced beers can be bottle conditioned, and while that might improve their shelf life, it will not turn them into candidates for your vintage beer cellar.

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