A cellar of one's own

Anthony Gladman's fantasy beer stash

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I like to daydream sometimes about a cellar of my own, a perfect place to spend time among my collection of cool and quietly ageing bottles of beer, the fruit of many years' thought and care.

It would have whitewashed walls and a ceiling of vaulted stone. Plain bulbs would light my way up and down its rows of shelves. Near the entrance would be room enough for a table and a few chairs. Nothing fancy, just wooden furniture, plain but well made. Nearby, a sideboard in which to keep glasses, bottle openers, cloths, and any other tasting accoutrements.

This is where I’d steal peaceful moments to check on my sleeping beers, opening a few now and then to see how the years are treating them. It’s also where I would enjoy a few bottles with guests. I’d bring them down here to show them the beauty that ageing can lend to beer.

I don’t have a cellar. I have a cupboard. This means any beers I want to age must work hard to earn their place. I must consider why I want to age them, and how well they might fare. When I open a beer five years from now will it reward me with something sublime, or a stale and papery reproach? If you’re in the same situation, here are a few tips for avoiding disappointment.

Giving yourself the best start

Your biggest enemy for ageing beer is oxygen acting over time. Your biggest ally for ageing beer is also oxygen acting over time. So, you have two levers, oxygen and time, to work with — but wouldn’t it be easier if you could lash one down and just concentrate on the other? We haven’t yet figured out how to freeze time, so let’s look at oxygen instead.

You can’t avoid oxidation altogether, and nor would you want to, but you can slow it down to give yourself a better chance of catching your beer at the right point in its development, before any stale wet-cardboard notes overrun its flavour. Store your bottle upright, somewhere it won’t be jostled. This keeps the beer’s surface area as small as possible, which means less contact with oxygen.

Dark beers are your friend, as their roasted malts have antioxidant properties. This is why Chimay Blue tends to do so well. I’d buy at least one crate each year for my cellar — enough to try some fresh, and then dip into over the years to see how it’s doing and compare one year’s batch with another.

Did I mention there’s a third lever to worry about? Given the chance, any microbes present in the beer could have a grand old time at your expense. To keep infection at bay, look for beers that are strong, sour or smoked. With strong beers (about 8% ABV and up) the alcohol will protect against infection. With sour beers, the acidity does the same job. With smoked beers, it’s the phenols. Something like a Gueuze Boon has a good chance of rewarding your patience, given it’s both sour and pretty strong to boot. Also, its flavour profile is not driven by malt, so it won’t suffer as its body fades (more on which shortly).

How time acts on flavour

Once ensured time is the only working lever left, we can look at how it acts upon our beers. There’s no single answer here, no roadmap to success, but plenty of travellers who went before have left markers along the way. We know, for instance, that bitterness mellows and hops fade over time. We know also that a beer’s alcoholic kick will lessen and make way for sweeter notes of fruitiness, caramel, and toffee.

Some beers are made to be aged. Fuller’s Vintage Ale is perhaps the best known example here in the UK. They’ve been making these barley wines since 1997, and bottles of the original brew now go for hundreds of pounds online. I tasted one at the brewery last year and it was amazing to find it still tasting fresh and delicious, full of complex fruit flavours of plum, apricot and raisin. There was vanilla sweetness and brandy on the nose. It brought to mind brioche or madeleines. A plus point with these is that they come in fairly sturdy cardboard boxes. Good for keeping the light out. Light is another enemy of beer, with hop compounds and UV rays combining to produce lightstrike, a.k.a. skunking. Yuck.

You can expect changes in a beer’s malt character over time. Beer’s body thins with age as malt proteins drop out of the solution, often forming a sediment at the bottom of the bottle. (They can bind with oxygen in doing so, helping to protect against oxidation.) Two lessons here: start with something that is almost too sweet when young, and pour old beers with care. Darker malts will start to resemble luxurious fortified wines, with amber beers developing sherry flavours, and roasted malts becoming more like sweet port. Any smokiness will mellow and integrate into a beer, becoming sweet and cigar-like.

The flavours that come from a beer’s fermentation, rather than its ingredients, also change with age. Esters turn towards dried fruit notes. Spicy phenols transform into vanilla, leather, and tobacco. Any acidity will soften and integrate into the beer, giving it a softer and often extremely satisfying character.

Orval is great for ageing. Fresh bottles are full of spritz and funk and verve. Over time it mellows and becomes more complex. How long to age Orval is a topic that could fill a whole article on its own. I had a four-year-old bottle recently that was a delight. It still had an appealing freshness but it was softer. The Brett had calmed down and there were delicate fruit notes that put me in mind of kiwis, white grapes and star fruit. Leave it too long, though, and things can start to go the other way. Someone I know tried an Orval that was 12 years old and found it too gnarly. The important lesson here is ageing beer is not a linear process. A beer’s quality will have peaks and troughs over the years.

One last general point is that flavours from barrel ageing remain consistent over time. (Assuming your beer has been bottled. If you’re ageing a barrel perhaps you should be writing this rather than reading it.) This means the barrel’s character — “woody” notes, vanilla, coconut, baking spices — may seem more or less pronounced as the beer’s other flavours change. Vanilla flavours from the oak may disappear but coconut or cinnamon may remain. An ink-black barrel-aged imperial stout will be great fun to age, and there always seem to be superb examples heading our way from the USA. Check out Fremont Brewery BBads 2020 Spice Wars for a recent example that’s worth sticking away for a while.

I’d certainly find space on my cellar shelves for any of these beers. Maybe I’ll even buy a couple for real and stash them in my cupboard. Then all I’d need to decide is how long to age them, and who to share them with. There’s a while yet before I’ll need to figure that out, and it’ll be fun to think about in the meantime.

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