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.