Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 23
Making sure older is better

Feb. 8, 2001

First, the disclaimer. Anheuser-Busch's emphasis on freshness, including putting a "born on date" on each bottle, is not just a marketing gimmick. We're going to write here about cellaring beer for a year or years, BUT that's not what you should do with the average beer.

Most beers, including virtually all lagers and plenty of ales, are matured at the brewery and filtered. The fresher you drink them the better they will taste.


Only a few special beers -- including many of the strong winter beers currently on liquor store shelves -- will improve over time. Bad beer won't get better; if you expect to be opening a great beer in three years you better be laying down a great beer now. The key elements are residual sugars and yeast, so that fermentation is still going on (albeit at a much slower rate than at the brewery). Here are the basics:

- The best candidates for aging are barley wines, strong ales, some stouts (particularly imperial stouts), Belgian Trappist and abbey beers, and gueuze. Of course, you're not going to find many gueuzes outside of Belgian, and when you do you can't be sure how they've been handled. Thus they are best left to a trip to Belgium (visit a top flight cafe in Antwerp, such as the Kulminator, and try a few of the hundreds of vintage beers on their menu). Only a few strong lagers are candidates for aging -- the most notable being the famous Samichlaus.

- You want to know the history of beers you lay down. It may be exciting to find a dusty old bottle of Thomas Hardy's Ale (England) or Sierra Nevada Big Foot (California) on the back of a liquor store shelf but you don't know where that beer has been all these years. It may have been left out in high heat or freezing cold, subjected to bright lights or otherwise mistreated. Buy your beer fresh, label each bottle (both the vintage and when you bought it) and store it with care.

- Vintage beers should be stored at cellar temperature (55-60F, 13-15C). The yeast will do its best work in that range, but won't like sudden changes in temperature or being bounced around by frequent moving. The less light the better. (Last week we wrote about using a second refrigerator to cellar your beer. You may want to review that in the Beer Break archives.)

- Store corked bottles on their sides, bottles with caps (crowns) upright.

- Lay down more than one beer from a vintage; that way you can sample as you go along. You may discover a beer is starting to turn and decide to drink the others. Remember that fruit and spiced beers will lose those characteristics and that hop intensity will start to fade over time.

Don't be afraid to drink a beer when it tastes great, because there's every chance it may not be as good next time you pull out a bottle. Also, enjoying it now will give you a good excuse to add something new to your liquid library.

Here are just a few beers to get you started: Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Bell's Expedition Stout, New Belgium Abbey Grand Cru, Boon Gueuze, Chimay Grand Reserve, Dogfish Head Immort Ale, Gale's Old Ale, Samuel Adams Triple Bock.

If you have some suggestions of your own, send your list to

Tasting notes

(Two beers suitable for cellaring)

Brewed by Allagash Brewing in Maine

Real Beer tasting notes:

Sold in a 750ml corked bottle, with a tag that suggests laying down the beer (if you can bear to). Billowing tan head. Sweet, fruity palate with a touch of cinnamon. Finishes dry, not at all cloying. Nice Belgian yeast burp.

Brewed at Traquair House in Scotland

Michael Jacksonís tasting notes:

A commemorative edition from the famous castle brewery in Scotland, at 10.0 per cent, rather than the usual 7.2. The typical earthy, walnut and chocolate notes, but much maltier and richer, with some residual sweetness. The usual warming finish is notably bigger. A classic Scottish ale, both delicious and sustaining.