Aging Beer: The Basics of Cellaring Your Brews
Originally introduced as a seasonal Christmas ale, Chimay Blue (‘Grande Reserve’) and its less potent older brother Chimay Rouge quickly find their way into the glass of those experimenting with the world outside of macro brewed ales and lagers.
My first experience with Chimay Blue was a 150cl ‘magnum’ Grande Reserve’ served at Beer Bistro in Toronto. At the time, while Chimay had some availability, Chimay Blue was rarely available in the Ontario. This was a real treat and early into my beer adventures was one of the best Belgians I’d come across. It was not until several years later that I encountered another bottle of Chimay Blue and — unfortunately — it did not live up to its original transcendent impression.
Believing I had originally placed far too much esteem in Chimay I moved onto other brews. But it wasn’t until I became much more immersed in the beer world that I realized why these two beers had tasted so different. Plain and simple, the magnum had aged much longer than the 33cl bottle I had picked up at the LCBO (magnums usually don’t sell as fast and likely had been sitting around longer)
Aging beer can have an enormous impact upon it. It can round out the flavors, tone down the hops, and lead to the development of new esters as the beer begins to take on different characteristics until it eventually becomes an entirely different beverage, sometimes almost nothing like its original, un-aged kin.
Do All Beers Age The Same?
Not every beer is best aged. With the vast majority of IPAs, the fresher the better. This style is dominated by bright hop aromas which quickly deteriorate over time — especially when exposed to light. The LCBO is notorious for taking a long time to get beers from the brewery onto local shelves as the bottles spend months navigating the LCBO’s bureaucracy before they end up on shelves and eventually in your glass.
Unlike Belgian ales, these brews are best poured fresh. If you can, try to get them directly from the brewery. If that’s not an option, try to buy bottles that have been produced as recently as possible. Under a month is best. Fresh, less critically acclaimed IPAs can be far superior to stale well-known imports.
When buying IPAs, choose ones that have been stored in a fridge or in a climate controlled room. The refrigeration, while not being as great as fresh, helps preserve the hops and slows down the aging process. I never understood why my local LCBO stores strong ales like Chimay in the fridge and hoppy beers out on the shelves. I’d recommend doing the opposite (Belgian Strong ales should not be served that cold or aged at a low temperature anyway!)
When you get your IPAs home and you’re not going to drink them immediately (you should), put them in your fridge to help protect the flavor and keep them at a proper serving temperature. When you bring your Belgians home, put them down in your cellar (or cool dark place devoid of light), drink your IPAs right away but bring the Belgians out in a year or two when they’ll really shine.
Bottled On and Best Before Dates
I’d go out and say that I hate “best before” dates on beer but then I’d be giving too much credit to breweries that do not put any indication of when a beer was brewed, or to those that use secret bottling codes which make determining bottling date near impossible for your average drinker. Best before dates on beer are really guidelines.
I once was fortunate enough to receive an “expired” bottle of Achel Extra Bruin (de 3 wijzen). The rare establishment that is aware of aging beer will generally charge a premium for properly aged ales while the average customer might return and (God forbid) have the establishment pour out the “expired” beer. Meanwhile, with IPAs, wheat beers, lagers and other similar styles the best before date should really read “the sooner the better.” This is why I’m a big fan of “Bottled On” dates.
Bottled On dates are better for both the retailer and the consumer. Best before dates should really be changed to recommendations. Regardless of your stylistic preferences, a Bottled On date allows you to find out how fresh your IPA is or how old your Belgian strong ale is. Meanwhile it prevents retailers from pouring out “expired” beers that might be well appreciated by someone looking for an aged ale.
When bottles don’t have a best before date, I recommend writing a ‘purchased on’ date on the bottle with a glass writing marker. If you’re planning on aging beer, it’s unlikely that it’s been at the retailer for more than several months and when aging for 3+ years those few months won’t make a significant difference. If you underestimate the age of something you plan to cellar you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised.
Properly Cellaring Your Beer
Cellaring sounds a lot better than ‘the beer that I store in the cupboard in my apartment’ so I’m going to continue to refer to it as cellaring. The ideal cellar would be one used for red wine with an adjustment made that allows for storing bottles vertically (no beer should touch the cork or cap). Failing this, you’ll want to keep your beer in an environment that most optimizes the following characteristics:
- around 13 °C
- Roughly 60% humidity (reduces mold growth but prevents corks from drying out). For the average drinker, just keep it in a normal room and avoid excess humidity/dryness.
- No sunlight and minimal indoor light
- Low traffic room/area (reduce tremors which may disrupt the yeast, accidentally bumping bottles and exposure to excessive light such as turning on and off the light switch).
- Consistency is key—you want to keep temperature as consistent as possible and most importantly avoid any abrupt change in temperature.
You will want to store your beer upright as opposed to on its side (or at an angle) as would be done with wine to reduce exposure to the oxygen within the bottle. I’ve read a few articles about corked bottles being less than ideal for aging. On the contrary, I think corked bottles are perfect for aging. I trust a cork to not deteriorate or go moldy (in the right conditions) more than I trust a cap not to leak or rust. I’ve read complaints about bottles tasting ‘corked’ but having stored my bottles upright I’ve never experienced this problem. The final reason for storing your bottles upright is if they contain active yeast — you will want the yeast to settle at the bottom of the bottle prior to serving.
Lastly, avoid aging beer in a fridge. Fridges are designed to reduce humidity so you risk drying out your cork and the temperature is generally lower than a cellar. At a lower temperature you slow down the maturation process of live yeast within the bottle. Refrigerate your hoppy beers and not those you intend to cellar.
Aging beer in beer cases is a simple solution. If you’re not buying a whole case of one variety in particular save an old case and create a mixed case time-capsule.
What Beers You Should Cellar
As a general rule of thumb, look for beers that are high in alcohol, strong in flavor, malty, contain active yeast (ale on lees) and not hop forward. That being said, there are no true rules to aging beer. There are some IPAs (ex. Dogfish head 120 minute IPA) which are reported to age well.
In general, if a beer is 5% or less, it should probably not be cellar unless it is a sour ale or lambic. Between 5% and 7.5% you can generally age for 1-2 years. At 9% and higher the beer likely requires aging before drinking and will store for years.There’s very little literature, and not even much online about aging beers so we’re really the pioneers of beer aging. Don’t be afraid to get experimental. I had a bottle of Arrogant Bastard I was told was 10 years old which, although heavily oxidized with little hops remaining, was quite enjoyable and almost like a scotch ale.
I’ve had great results with Chimay Blue, Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque and Peche Mortel, any Belgian Quad (St. Bernardus 12, etc.), Les Trois Mousquetaires Baltic Porter, La Fin du Monde (A must try), Fullers Vintage Ale and St. Ambroise Vintage Ale. Almost all barley wines age very well. I’ve aged Chimay Red for over five years and although I found it enjoyable, it was quite oxidized and likely was past its prime (one year is probably the peak).
Foreign stouts, milk stouts and wheat beers generally do not age well. Also, while I enjoy aged La Fin du Monde, Chimay recommends drinking Chimay White (their triple) as fresh as possible. I aged Westmalle Triple for two years and found little had changed. I can’t overstate this — aged La Fin du Monde is a must try.
Comparing Beers of Different Styles
Too many times have I seen Belgian Ales compared (most commonly St. Bernardus 12 with Westvleteren XII) without reference to the age of the bottles or, on the flip side, two IPAs without reference to the freshness of the bottles.
Despite rumors that St. Bernardus 12 is effectively a clone of Westvletern XII (the origin of this rumor is St. Bernardus used to contract Brew Westvleteren XII. When the contract ended, St. Bernardus brewed St. Bernardus XII using the same recipe) there’s a good chance that if you’re in North America, or reading a comparison done of the beers outside of Belgium, that Westy 12 will be more popular than the Bernadus 12.
I theorize that this is because St. Bernardus has relatively strong distribution in North America leading to fresh bottles being available. Meanwhile due to Westy 12 being grey market (you can technically only buy it directly from the brewery in limited quantities per car) the distribution channel has considerable lag and there’s a good chance that the bottle is one year old by the time it enters the first purchasers hands. Then it gets traded around and finally opened up by someone who forked over a fortune at a bar or organized some sort of trade for the bottle. By the time the bottles opened it’s aged for quite some time and is then compared with a bottle of St. Bernardus 12 fresh off the shelves.
Given the considerable age differences, this is hardly a fair comparison and reviewers should strive to obtain bottles with as similar age as possible (or at least disclose the age to readers!) On the other hand, even if the beers are the same age, it is still not an ideal comparison given they were aged under different conditions. Regardless, the age of a beer is a significant factor that should be taken note of when comparing different beers.
Lastly, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that some brewers change their recipe year over year (even if it is just a minor tweak). For example, Fuller’s Vintage Ales are brewed with a slightly different recipe each year so determining how well the beer ages is difficult as it is not possible to compare with a fresh bottle. As such, detailed notes must be taken at the time the bottle is tasted fresh and again subsequently when the aged bottle is consume. By then your palate might have changed making it a very difficult—but delicious—comparison .
Other Things to Consider When Aging Beer
- Try to taste the aged beer next to a fresh bottle. When possible, attempt to do a vertical of successive years to determine prime aging.
- Store enough bottles to try one a year for every year you age it. Similar to the above point this allows for comparing successive years.
- How much did aging beer improve it? Was it worth the wait? Sometimes if it’s a rare beer it might be worth cellaring due to limited availability rather than in the hope of ‘improving’ the beer.
- Does your area allow bulk buying? Unfortunately a case of beer at the LCBO costs as much as a single, but if you’re able to buy and age a case you might reap some cost saving.
- Don’t expect the beer to be ‘the same but better.’ The beers characteristics change for better and for worse. Some desirable characteristics will develop while the hops become muted and other less desirable characteristics develop. It’s a balancing act.
- Don’t age a beer you can’t afford to lose. While aging beers like Chimay Blue are almost guaranteed to yield positive results there’s a risk that you don’t like the end result or due to a defect in brewing the bottle goes bad. If it’s a limited bottle you only got one of, don’t bother aging it.
- Lastly, be patient and don’t underestimate your desire to take a beer out of your cellar for drinking before planned. On the flip side, beer is meant for drinking not collecting. At some point, that rare bottle might be the last of its kind but if you don’t open it up to enjoy then you’re missing the point of aging beer.
Tasting Notes of Chimay Blue 2010 vs. 2015
|Chimay 2010 (Aged)||Chimay 2015 (Fresh)|
*This was unexpected, usually the hops in Chimay are not very noticeable but when compared to an aged version they become very apparent.
The Chimay 2010, with five years aging was far superior to the underdeveloped Chimay 2015. However, from experience, the Chimay 2010 was not miles ahead of a 1-2 year old Chimay Blue. Age a few 2+ years for very special occasions, enjoy them at 1-2 years and at <1 year I would probably recommend avoiding it. On other occasions, while older (2+ year) bottles were superior, additional aging yields little additional benefit and I don’t expect much benefit beyond 5 years.