Thursday, June 9, 2016

Aged like a fine... Beer?

Yes, we are talking about aging and cellaring beer. What? You’ve never heard of aging beer?! Yes, it’s a thing. And it’s a wonderful thing! By the way: for the purpose of this article, “aging” and “cellaring” are used interchangeably. Beer cellaring is far from cut & dry. Follow me down the cellar. Watch your step...

(Photo source below)

What Beers to Age and How:

Possibly the most common question regarding beer aging is: what beers should I age? In his book Tasting Beer, Randy Mosher says, “Ales are, primarily, with bottle-conditioned ones preferred, as the yeast provides a bit of a protective effect.” Although it does not have any preservative properties, yeast does add character over time and helps provide longevity in the form of unique flavor development. Take care to not store bottle-conditioned beers in excess heat. This will cause the yeast autolysis (the death of yeast: rupturing the cell-walls releasing an array of compounds into the beer) and completely ruining your efforts. More on this down below. Speaking of temperature...

Recommended cellar temperatures are about 50° – 60°F. Some publication say 55° – 65°F. Basically this is the range a typical cellar. So when you hear someone say “cellar temperature” this is roughly the range they are talking about. Extreme temperature fluctuations should be avoided. Humidity might be a factor when regarding corked bottles. However, there is humidity inside the bottle, so this shouldn't be a problem as long the environment isn't extremely dry. A bit more on corks in the following section.

I once had a 3-year-old Corona which was kept unrefrigerated in an uninsulated garage where temperatures exceeded 110°F during the summer. Yes, I tasted this on purpose. Why? For science! There was also a fresh (well, recently purchased) bottle of Corona there for comparison.

I took the first sample. It was awful! Next, I proceeded to sample the 3-year-old Corona... (*taps microphone* Is this thing on? Ha!) Seriously though, the flavors of the aged Corona were astonishing. Think rancid apple juice mixed with vinegar and skunk spray. Yummy, right?

Besides the ridiculous heat, a Corona isn’t exactly a poster-child for the suggested beers to age. Typically, most will say to keep the ABV at 7% or higher and I tend to agree with this statement. Ethanol (the alcohol found in beer) is great for stability. Usually, darker colored beers tend to age better, too. As beer ages there’s bound to be some oxidation. In lighter beers this oxidation will cause paper/cardboard flavors in your beer. On the flip side, when aging darker colored beers, this same oxidation happens, but the highly kilned malts used will to evolve into a nutty, port and/or sherry-like characters and possibly some anise notes to add unique complexity.

Hops aroma and flavor will degrade and drop out followed by bitterness. Highly-hopped beers are usually not suitable for aging because of this.

Beers stored upright in a temperature-controlled fridge

Bottle Orientation:

Now for the bottle orientation. This is where the most vocal opinions reside on this subject. Most will say always keep your bottles upright while some say to lay them horizontal on a rack. Here’s the debate: Corks kept in a dry environment have to potential to dry out and shrink. Notice I’ve said "potential." There are many factors that I won’t get into here, but it CAN happen. That DOES NOT mean it ALWAYS happens. A solution would be to lay the beer on its side to keep the cork wet. However, this may cause a compound known as 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA) to add its musty flavors into the beer since the fungus thought to cause TCA thrives in corks.

With that said, sour and wild beers in corked bottles are what I believe to be the driving factor in this debate. Souring organisms are usually still present in a wild ale. Under aerobic conditions (presence of oxygen), the souring organism Acetobacter will begin to produce Acetic Acid essentially turning the beer into vinegar. Therefore, if the sour ale is bottles with a cork, there is argument towards laying these beers down to keep the cork wet keeping oxygen out. The downside: beer contacting the cork increasing the chances of TCA imparting its musty cellar traits.

My suggestion? Keep non-sour or non-wild beers upright, and lay down corked sours/wilds. If you do lay down your beers, turn them upright for a day or so to allow any sediment to drop and collect at the bottom of the bottle.

Vertical tasting of 2006 through 2015 Stone IRS
(Photo by Chris Scott)

Off-Flavors:

Off-flavor development is quite common with aged beer, although they are not always negative, depending on concentration. Autolysis (as mentioned above) can impart a broth-like aroma to a beer when it’s in small quantities, yet it can be absolutely disgusting in high concentrations. Imagine rotten garbage water. This is caused by all the Mercaptan compounds released during autolysis.

Oxidation is caused by the formation of the compound Trans-2-nonanal. As mentioned above, this adds a sherry or port quality to beers made with dark and specialty malts. In light beers or in extremely high quantities, it tastes like wet cardboard.

Diacetyl can also form in ages beer. Click here for my previous post about Diacetyl to find out more.

Acetaldehyde adds a green apple/sour apple, or even latex paint aromas. This compound is produced during normal yeast metabolism and is reduced into ethanol. Over oxidation can convert ethanol back to acetaldehyde.

Acetic Acid is caused by the bacteria Acetobacter under the presence of oxygen. See section above.

Big hoppy beers are best enjoyed fresh. As highly-hopped beers age, those intense hop aromas and flavors drop out and make way for the compound Beta-Damascenone. This creates a berry-like aroma and flavor that may or may it be pleasant.

There’s a slew of other compounds which degrade, arise, and may degrade again making way for even more complex compounds during beer aging. The chemistry is complex and it is tough to know the end result will be desirable or not.

Notable Exceptions:

Lambics are complex! The blended Lambics, Gueuze, are low in ABV (usually under 6%) and quite light in color. Yet, they can age for many years! This already complex style gets weirder under the right cellar conditions. These artisan and ancient beers are the only remaining beers to be spontaneously fermented by the natural airborne microflora (bacteria and fungi from a particular habitat) found in the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. Garrett Oliver says in The Oxford Companion to Beer, “Because of the interactions between its complex microflora, the aging of lambic is unique among beers… In lambic, the microflora represent the biggest influence over the period of aging, but other factors are at work as well.”

Vintage bottles of Gueuze
(Photo by Ralph Turner)

Double and "triple" IPAs are very popular. As stated above, these intensely floral, aromatic, bitter beers are best fresh. However, there are some who believe an aged Double IPA or Imperial Red morphs into Barleywine-ish beer over time. It's an interesting thought and worth experimenting. It will not always work, but it can. Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA can age gracefully. It's not the same beer when aged, of course. The abundance of malts used and the elevated ABV makes for a splendid beer when cellared properly. I’ve had more disasters than successes when aging hoppy beers. Proceed with caution should you choose to age a big Double IPA.

Pigmentation:

When an aged wine is finally uncorked, white wine develops color leaning towards a golden shade, and red wine fades down to a strange redish-brownish color. Beer does the same thing, only with different color shifts. Aged lighter colored beers will gain shades of copper, while dark and black beers lighten up a bit. In my experience, the lightening up of dark beers is not as noticeable as the darkening of paler beers.

And there you have it!

In the end, it is entirely up to you if that bottle you have in your fridge should be opened now or later. By now it should be safe to say not all beers are meant to be aged. Don’t be afraid to experiment and ask questions. Many times, the beer label itself will have suggested aging timeframes and recommended caller temperatures. Start with that and then move on to experimentation.

I’ll leave you with this. A good friend of Terms of Enbeerment and much respected beer guide, Ed Heethuis, shared some words of wisdom on beer aging. This sums it up perfectly. “Aging beer is like making croutons. Since beer is basically liquid bread, and croutons are made from old bread...one has to choose wisely. Just like not all old bread produces great croutons, not all beer ages well.”

Let’s make some croutons! Choose your bread wisely.



Cheers!

Gilbert “Charlie” Perez, Certified Cicerone®



*Resources and Helpful Links:

http://focusonthebeer.com/2013/01/cellarmanship-part-2-how-to-store-your-hoarded-beer-properly.html/

http://www.beeradvocate.com/beer/101/store/

http://www.craftbeer.com/craft-beer-muses/cellaring-craft-beer-to-age-or-not-to-age

http://www.dogfish.com/community/blogfish/members/justin-williams/5-things-you-should-know-about-aging-beer.htm

http://draftmag.com/cellaring-technique/

http://draftmag.com/cellaring-evolving-flavors/

http://draftmag.com/the-great-cellaring-myths/

Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher

The Oxford Companion to Beer

Cellar Photo credit: pixabay.com