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The Tastes of Time

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Vintage brews age beautifully in cellars, enhancing flavor profiles to take beers from good to great.
By Jim Galligan August 2014 Beer

Old beer is bad for business; at least, that’s what most restaurateurs and bar managers have been taught. An IPA or a lager loses its legs when it languishes in kegs, so keeping customers happy means keeping the beer as fresh as possible.

While this obsession with freshness makes good sense for most styles of beer, there are a growing number of beer-program managers and craft beer enthusiasts who have discovered that certain beers age with the grace and sophistication of a fine wine.

For a restaurant that is built around a beer-centric concept, the addition of a cellaring program can give the establishment a gravitas that will keep beer geeks coming back.

“There are things that happen to a beer over time that make aging very worthwhile,” says Patrick Dawson, author of Vintage Beer: A Taster’s Guide to Brews That Improve over Time. “The alcohol presence is going to mellow, and new interesting flavors like sherry, port, toffee, caramel, raisins, and figs will emerge—things that you would never find in a fresh beer.”

Dawson says aging a beer properly allows these flavors to intertwine in a process he calls integration.

“If you’ve ever let a stew sit over night, the next day it tastes so much better because its flavors come together and mellow,” he says. “The same thing happens over time with beer.”

Informed Choices

The key to aging beers well starts with choosing the right brew. Dawson says maybe 1 percent of beers produced today will actually improve in the cellar.

When selecting a beer to cellar, there are three elements he considers—the alcohol content, which should be strong (usually 10 percent ABV or above); the sourness of the flavor; and a smoky profile—though the beer needs just one of these attributes to be considered for cellaring.

“That extra alcohol, the acidity in a sour beer, or those smoked phenols essentially act as a preservative in the beer, slowing the aging process,” Dawson notes. “A slow aging process is key, because while the off-flavors that make a beer taste stale can emerge quite quickly, the complex flavors that you want to develop in the beer are very slow to emerge. They’re very stubborn flavors.”

Having a natural preservative in the beer keeps the bad flavors at bay while buying time for the good flavors to emerge.

“The three S’s [strong, sour, smoked] will get you 90 percent of the way there; the other 10 percent hinges on the nuances of the beer you’re going to age,” Dawson says. “For example, if you want an English Barleywine to age well, it needs to be more than just strong; it should have tons of fruity esters in it.” Esters are flavors that are created when an alcohol and an acid combine. “Over time, those esters that currently come across as pears, tree fruits, and stone fruits will transform into wonderful tastes of dark dried fruits, figs, and dried apricots.”

Popular styles of beer to age include Barleywines, Stouts, Lambics, Gueuze, Rauchbiers, and smoked Porters. Dawson says beers with hop-centric flavor profiles like Imperial IPAs should be avoided, as those hoppy aspects fade quickly over time, and if a beer is designed around them, it likely will not age well.

The Science of Aging

There’s a ton of happy chemistry happening in the bottle over time.

“Oxidation is going to be the major player,” Dawson says. “It takes those alcohols and transforms them into what are called aldehydes, which create a host of different flavors that are generally described as sweet-tasting. Notes of toffee and caramel might emerge, or you might get things like amaretto and some nutty-tasting flavors.”

A beer’s esters—subtle notes of flavors like tree fruit, bananas, or even bubblegum—interact with fusel alcohol over time to create new, deeper, and more complex flavors.

The melanoidins, which come from the beer’s roasted malts and give a beer its dark color and toasty taste, will be oxidized into rich wine-like flavors.

“A Barleywine will taste caramel-like when it’s fresh, but it will then transform to a sherry flavor when aged,” Dawson says. “An Imperial Stout that comes across more coffee-like will be imbued with a port flavor over time.”

How long to age a beer varies from style to style and beer to beer, but the fact that there is no roadmap for exactly how long to age a beer is part of what makes tasting a cellared beer exciting.

According to Dawson, Imperial Stouts will age the most quickly, because they have loads of melanoidins that start producing the flavors associated with cellaring much more quickly than other styles. An appreciable difference can be tasted in many Imperial Stouts in six months, while other beers will need three years to fully blossom.

An English Barleywine is going to take two or three years to develop, but will continue to change in wonderful ways for decades. Conversely, American Barleywines should be enjoyed sooner, as their hopped-up character fades after a few years, robbing them of an important aspect of their flavor. Dawson recommends enjoying these between six months to three years after cellaring.

Sour beers like Gueuze and Lambics are trickier. “It really comes down to the palate of who is drinking it,” he says. “Over time the beer’s malt character is going to disappear, and it becomes much more wine-like. It comes across much fruitier and thicker, and the tannins start to show up from the oak barrels that are used to age these beers at the brewery.”

Dawson suggests that 30- to 40-year-old Gueuze beers “just keep getting better and better with age, but there are tons of people I know that like a Lambic or a Gueuze as soon as it’s released.”

How long to age a smoked beer also depends on personal preferences.

The phenols from the smoke flavoring in a beer act as a preservative that keeps off-flavors from setting in while the aging process unfolds. These beers usually take two to 10 years for the overpowering flavor of smoke to abate and for new and interesting flavors to emerge—which is the whole point of cellaring.

For people who love the smokiness of these beers, Dawson advises to drink them when they are fresh, before their campfire-like quality fades away to but a wisp of flavor.

Of course, restaurants can let their customers decide when it’s the right time for a beer to come out of the cellar, and simply offer each vintage on the bottle menu after aging it for the recommended minimum time.

Cellars: Start to Finish

While it’s important to know when to pull a particular style from the cellar, the time will be wasted if the beer isn’t stored in the proper conditions. Dawson advises finding an area that’s free of light and has a temperature that consistently hovers around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

He also recommends waxing the tops of bottles that have caps to ensure no oxygen seeps in. Additionally, storing beer upright whenever possible will keep sediment at the bottom of the bottle, lowering the chances of nasty off-flavors that arise during a process called autolysis, and allowing the beer to be served at a moment’s notice without a cloud of dead yeast cells spoiling the pour.

“If a customer orders the beer, you have to serve it right away,” Dawson says. “You can’t say ‘Oh, come back in two or three days. It’ll be ready then.’”

The way most restaurants begin selling vintage beer is to start a cellaring program from scratch simply by tucking away fresh beers for future consumption, but there are ways to jumpstart the effort.

“Distributors might have a few hard-to-sell beers just sitting in the back of the refrigerator or collecting dust on a storage shelf,” Dawson suggests. “If you can, go to their warehouse, poke around to see what they have and you might be able to unearth some gems.”

Although a little snooping might lead to a happy discovery, Dawson is not aware of any place where distributors or importers are intentionally aging beer for later sale.

Restaurants contemplating adding vintage beers should also do so with realistic expectations about the potential return on investment. Most bars and restaurants that have cellaring programs aren’t charging inflated prices for their aged selections. While some rare aged beers might go for a premium, most aged bottles command an extra one or two dollars for each year they’ve been in the cellar.

“Restaurants and bars that are aging beer aren’t doing it to make additional money; they’re doing it because they’re passionate about it,” Dawson says. “They want to be able to please those really nerdy beer geeks that are oftentimes their target audience.”

While a beer-cellaring program might not be a new profit center, it can set a restaurant apart from the competition with a desirable subset of customers. All it takes is a few smart choices, a cool, dark place, and a little patience.