Long Term Beer Storage
Part IV of IV in a series on the age of beer. [ Part 1 2 3 4 ]
Knowing that most beer is designed to be drank fresh, and understanding that different styles of beer have different shelf lives, we now come full circle to the idea that some beer actually benefits from aging. Some brews can be excessively alcoholic, and often strong malt and roast flavors can overpower the more subtle underlying elements of a beer’s flavor. Over time the sharpness of alcohol and intense malts fade, allowing other aspects of the beers to work together in a more harmonious fashion.
Cellar this beer for delicious results.
The alcohol and roast of a Russian Imperial Stout can subside to reveal estery yeast notes that remind the palate of port wine. Beer also oxidizes over time as it reacts with oxygen, a staling process that can actually add sherry-like or chocolatey notes to a beer, turning a bracingly bitter barleywine into something more romantic to the tongue.
But what beers can we cellar? In general, let the tongue be your guide. A basic guideline that is cited with regularity is the 8% ABV minimum for consideration of cellar aging. A healthy dose of alpha acids in the form of early addition bittering hops doesn’t hurt either (meaning bitter beer ages well). A good beer can become a great beer with a little age on it, but then again, sometimes a great beer won’t get any better. The tongue and trial and error shall be our guide. Try it. Find out. While many hardcore beer geeks seek out rare beers like Kate the Great Russian Imperial Stout, it is easier to find a few bottles of Stone Russian Imperial Stout and let them sit for a few years. The results can be quite surprising.
Yeasties and Oddities
Part III of IV in a series on the age of beer. [ Part 1 2 3 4 ]
Beyond the basics of malt and hops, artisanal brewers take advantage of countless other sources of flavor and aroma when they formulate their beers. Besides water, we are still missing one crucial beer ingredient: yeast. During fermentation, yeast not only turns maltose (sugar) into alcohol, it can provide a full range of flavors. While American strains are usually more neutral, English yeast strains provide fruity esters, German hefeweizen yeast can add banana and clove flavors, and Belgian strains can offer phenolic notes, and wild yeasts can add anything between lemons and horse blankets.
Pic somewhat unrelated. Just avoid this; it is not a real lambic.
The variety of yeasts is vast, but what does this mean in terms of keeping our beer fresh? The yeast profile of a beer should be regarded similarly to malt flavors of a beer. The overall complexity of a beer can generally be correlated successfully to the shelf life of a beer (with notable exceptions—never forget the hops). Flavors and aromas created by the yeast will fade over time, but the more there is the longer it will take to fade away. Yeast strains that add intense flavors to beers, such as Belgian ale yeast strains, add to the shelf life of beer. Neutral yeast strains, such as American ale yeast, add very little, and so the beer is only as vulnerable to degradation as the sum of its other ingredients.
One oddity when it comes to the age of beer is sour beer, or wild ales and lambics. In these beers, a spectrum of wild yeasts and bacterias help to ferment them, resulting in pungent flavors, mostly sour and funk. Many regard these sour beers as the best beers to age, even though they may have little alcohol and very few hops. While your experiences may vary, these can normally easily be stored for at least a couple of years without any negative impact on the beer.
Malts & Natural Preservatives
Part II of IV in a series on the age of beer. [ Part 1 2 3 4 ]
The tasty aromatic oils of the hop cone may be the most vulnerable to degradation, but hops are only one of the ingredients in beer. Let us examine the primary ingredient in beer: malts. Barley malt is where most of the flavor comes from in beer and it also contains the sugars that are turned into alcohol during fermentation. While a few ounces of hops spice the beer, barley malt is the backbone.
Beer stored cold, the ideal retailer.
The core flavor of a beer comes from the malt and degrades over time. Beer with little malt flavors such as pale lagers have a crisp taste that becomes stale and grainy within months. These beers are made with pale malts and use little of it. More substantial beers have more shelf life, as there is a great deal more flavor to begin with and a variety of malts are often used. Stouts, for instance, have good shelf as they not only utilize more malt, but also malts with more flavor, like roasted barley.
Despite these differences, the vast majority of beers are designed and made to be drank fresh. When most beers hits the shelves it is ready to drink, so it makes sense that most beer should be kept refrigerated by both retailers and consumers. The number of beers that do not benefit from refrigeration makes up a small percentage of beer sales. Though few stores do, almost all beer should be refrigerated to preserve its brewery fresh taste.
It could be said that pale beers have less shelf life than dark beer, but there are many exceptions to this rule. The first exception is related to the alcohol content. With every pound of malt in a recipe, more sugars are added which ferment into beer. Alcohol is a natural preservative, so the higher the alcohol content the better the shelf life of a beer. More hops normally complement brews with more malt, and these are also natural preservatives.
Part I of a series on the age of beer, freshness and cellaring.
DEMAND BREWERIES DATE THEIR BEER
While it is obvious that any time is a good time for beer, time and beer have a complicated but fundamental relationship in the realm of beer enjoyment. Time affects beer just as it affects any food, but its nature can be quite fickle. Most people understand that freshness is often essential when it comes to beer, and advertising from commodity beer brewers has reinforced this notion. Time can be beer’s worst enemy. On the other hand, as the well-versed beer drinker knows, age can also be a wise friend to beer. Both consumers and retailers need to understand the interaction between time and different beer styles and the organization of fridge and shelf or cellar space should be based upon this knowledge.
The complexity of beer is attributed to the variety of sources that different flavors can be derived from: different amounts and varieties of hops and grains, different yeast strains, multitudes of flavorings at the brewer’s discretion, and the level of alcohol in the end product. Time reacts with each of these elements differently. This explains why different types of beer require different methods of storage.
Victory for Freshness Dating
Hops are the top priority when it comes to beer age and freshness is tantamount. The flavor and aroma compounds that we squeeze out of the hop flower are by far the most degradable part of beer. Any beer with substantial hop flavors or aromas should be refrigerated at all times. This includes, but is not limited to, Pale Ales, single and double India Pale Ales, and real Pilseners. Any beer where hops are central to the beer is in danger of fading to flavor oblivion in a matter of weeks to months.
The importance of freshness in lighter and hoppy styles of beers is well known, but there is one category that is horribly overlooked: coffee beers. Anyone who drinks coffee can tell you that coffee beans are best when fresh, usually within a few days after being roasted. When coffee is made it quickly goes stale if not drank immediately. Why do people assume that the coffee in their beer is going to last forever?
While coffee beer obviously lasts longer than a pot of coffee, the flavor and aroma does fade rapidly. Since coffee is most often paired with a porter or stout, people are used to being able to save these beers for a rainy day. For instance, let’s take a look at Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout. At 13% ABV many people just assume this beer is a candidate for aging. The regular Bourbon County Brand Stout with a couple of years of cellar age is magnificent. The coffee version used wonderful Black Cat Espresso from Intelligentsia, one of the finest espressos available. But every week this beer sits in the bottle the espresso fades away.
Having been released over six months ago, what was once an amazing intense espresso character has faded to only a hint of its former self. The end product now only tastes slightly different than the original beer instead of the high octane espresso explosion it once was.
To put it bluntly, this beer was amazing, but now the espresso is ruined. Congratulations if you are cellaring this beer. You have wasted what was a masterpiece of espresso and barrel aged imperial stout. Drink promptly before any more injustice is done. It is awful to think that a huge amount of these beers were not drank fresh.
Respect coffee. Refrigerate coffee beers and drink them promptly. If you will excuse me, I have a growler of AleSmith Speedway Stout fresh from the brewery to attend to.