Bottle conditioning

May 2001

By Gary Monterosso

As strange as it may seem, it is possible that the beer you own may be quite palatable years after your purchase.

I am not advocating stocking your inventory with cases of beer from the well-known megabreweries, but there continue to be circumstances in which, under ideal conditions, a particular beer might last indefinitely.

As I rule, I don't believe in storing beer indefinitely. Most beer, especially the mass-produced, filtered types, are meant to be consumed young. No doubt you've seen the "Born on" and "Best if served by" dating on so many bottles. Rather, I am referring to a process known as "bottle conditioning," in which the beer is bottled without any yeast removed. Beer packaged in this way tends to last longer, even years, continuing to age and mellow as it grows in complexity. Unfortunately, many packaged goods store owners negate the work of the brewer by refrigerating the beer upon receipt of the inventory. Chilling it ends the maturation process of the beer and ceases development. But that is a topic for a future article.

If we go back in time, most beers were nonfiltered and bottle conditioned. The movement back to this style, referred to as "cask conditioning," is alive in the United Kingdom and is making a resurgence here in the U.S.

Looking at, then drinking a bottle conditioned beer isn't for the faint of heart. You will notice a sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Don't fret, it is nothing more than yeast which has flocculated (clumped) and settled from the solution. There are two schools of thought on that.

Many people try to pour these beers gently so as not to disturb the layer of yeast. In actuality, there is yeast throughout the bottle, in amounts too small to be noticed by the naked eye. The fact that the beer in your glass may appear cloudy is not reason to toss it. The cloudiness is, in fact, that minute amount of yeast.

Other people allow the yeast to pour. Though this can darken the beer, it also adds significant amounts of B vitamins to the mix. Personally, I opt for the latter but it is a matter of personal preference.

So, just how long can that bottle of bottle conditioned beer last? Assuming proper storage, it could retain good quality for years. By good storage, I mean keeping the beer at optimum conditions: out of direct sunlight, maintaining a cool temperature, not manhandling and so on.

Late last year, I attended a "vertical tasting" of Anchor Brewing's "Our Special Ale," at a gathering in Philadelphia. As with wines, a vertical tasting refer to the concept of sampling the same drink from varying years. In Anchor's case, Our Special Ale is a seasonal which comes out after Thanksgiving and does change slightly in recipe each year. Those in attendance tried a small amount of each beer from 1993 to 2000, with all showing fluctuations based on the spices used. All, however, had aged gracefully.

In early April, I received five cases of Our Special Ale from Andy Musser, known to many of you as one of the broadcasters for the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. Andy works on a part-time basis for the brewery and knows of my interest in their beer. What is so exciting to me is that some of the beer I received dates back to 1982. Knowing Andy as I do, I am confident about the beer's history (storage).

Hopefully, by the end of this year, I plan on opening some of the bottles to determine for myself how this ale has aged. You'll be the first to know!

Gary Monterosso