Over the years I have been asked a lot of questions regarding the process of aging beer. I have been experimenting with it for the better part of a decade now, so I thought it was time for me to put my thoughts into a guide of sorts for those who have questions. Please keep in mind that I’m no expert. My opinions are based on my experience, some research, and a lot of conversations with like-minded people. I’ll make mistakes – feel free to correct me.
First off, although there are not exactly absolutely unbreakable rules, there are certainly many things you want to avoid when considering placing a beer down to rest – especially for a long period of time. I think we have been conditioned to mistakenly view beer as a non-perishable product because it won’t really make you sick if it spoils. It’s on the shelf at the grocery store for months and months next to the Kraft Dinner, so we assume it won’t change, but trust me, it does – and mostly not for the better. That said, just like that leftover curry or spaghetti sauce in your fridge that somehow tastes better after resting overnight, some beer can evolve into something more interesting (and arguably better) over time. However, it’s about understanding which beers to sit on, how much time to wait, and if that change in flavour is something you like or don’t like – and that’s the journey I want to help you with.
What I have discovered though – through much trial and error – is that the ultimate key to deciding if you should purposely age a beer for an extended period of time, is entirely dependent on your understanding of your own palate. What you like and what you don’t like are absolutely everything here.
Although I tend to think most beer is better fresh, there are no definitive rules that state drinking one beer fresh is objectively better, and drinking a different beer with a year on it is objectively better. It comes down to personal taste. That said, if you are new to all this, there are things you’d probably want to understand before going forward.
One question that comes up a lot is surrounding wax seals. For those that don’t know, some breweries dip their more “cellar-focused” bottles in wax before distributing them. The original idea (as far as I know) was to assist with the aging process by adding an extra layer of sealant to the cap of the bottle. My opinion – and I think the general opinion of most beer folk these days – is that it’s pretty much nonsense. That said, there are two positives about doing it: (1) it makes the bottles look damn cool, which let’s face it, is a fun element about craft beer, and (2) it protects the cap and surrounding area from mold and general grossness after sitting in your dank cellar for 5 years. That said, they are also a pain in the ass to open a lot of the time, so I can take it or leave it. In short, I personally don’t think it matters either way.
The first thing to ask yourself is why are you holding onto your beer? Beers don’t need years to start “aging”; some beer styles change drastically over the course of a couple of weeks. Maybe you are aging beer because you have too much and you just need to set some aside. Perhaps you want to start a collection of various beers so you can chose what you want to drink when you want to drink it. Lastly – and what I’m mostly going to be concentrating on in this article – is that you may be curious about how beers evolve over time, and what kinds of new flavours will emerge.
Regardless of the reasons you are sitting on beer, there are important factors to consider. For instance, it’s key to have a basic understanding of (1) which styles you need to drink fresh, (2) which styles you can sit on for a little while without them going “bad,” and (3) which styles you can sit on for a long time to see how they evolve.
Which Beers do I need to drink fresh?
What I need to start by saying – and this is really key here – is that most beer is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible. That said, (And I’m sorry to reiterate what I just said) some beers “need” to be consumed fresh, while others are okay with a little time, and others can (arguably) actually improve with time. It’s important to understand the differences.
India Pale Ales have to be consumed as fresh as possible; It’s kind of that simple. And I’ll stand by that. Hop flavours and aromatics (which are the focal point of IPAs) fade extremely fast. And it’s not only that, because over even a short period of time oxidation can cause off flavours. Personally, whether we are talking about an American IPA, a Vermont IPA, a “hazy” IPA, a “Juicy” IPA, an NEIPA, or an “insert whatever” IPA, I personally never purchase one more than four 4 weeks old. I’m sure I’ll ruffle a few feathers saying that, but whatever, it’s my money okay! I’ve read a few books on aging beer, and just like everything in the beer world, the minute you think you understand a given “rule”, a bunch of exceptions arise. I’m not going to deal with the nitty gritty here, but talk in more general terms, so don’t come at me with “…but Dogfishhead’s 120 minute IPA is meant to be aged, bruh!”. I get it, but fackoff already. Also, any other styles that are hop forward, like American pale ales, India pale lagers, Brett IPAs, Black IPAs, and so on, should also be consumed fresh if possible.
Smoothies or Slushies are a relatively new style of beer that involves adding fruit puree to a sour beer base post-fermentation. What this means is that the sugar in the puree is not fermented alongside the grain, so yeast in the can will keep eating and keep creating carbonation. If left too long, the can could explode and make your fridge look like a murder scene. Some breweries are experimenting with pasteurization in order to avoid this from occurring, however, we are talking about loads of fruits, so you probably want to drink that as fresh as possible to retain that beautiful brightness.
Which Beers can i sit on for a bit?
Not to keep repeating myself, but again, most beer is meant to be consumed fresh. That said, the bulk of beer styles that are made are more or less okay to sit on the shelf at your local store or in your fridge for some time without tasting off.
For instance, most Lagers, Porters, Stouts, Red Ales, Brown Ales, Blond Ales, Wheat Beers, Bocks, Berliner Weiss’, Kettle Sours, and so on do just fine for a little while. That said, despite many of them not necessarily carrying a dominant hop profile, it is important to note that what hop aromatics they do have will fade with time. Again though, you don’t need to worry too much about having these styles extremely fresh, but they are certainly not getting better with time.
Pastry Stouts are a new beer style that I haven’t done too much experimenting with aging. Initially, given their high ABV and rich profile you would think they’d be great contenders for long-term aging. However, many are made with a lot of adjuncts like coconut, chocolate, coffee, or nuts, and some are made with wacky ingredients like cookies, marshmallows or even kids cereal. So not only will you loose the flavor of a lot of these additional adjuncts over time, it’s hard to say what the fat in Oreo cookies are going to do to a beer after 3 years. My advice is to always drink them as fresh as possible, but I don’t think you need to worry about them quite like you would an IPA.
Which Beers Can Get Better with Time?
Figuring out what beer gets better with time is kind of the ultimate question. Some would argue that none do, while others swear by it. Regardless, understanding what you like and what you don’t like is really the key here.
Aging beer is a privilege in that it assumes you have the space to do it and the finances to buy enough beer to sit on for a long period. My suggestion is to always buy two of a beer that you are looking to rest for a long time, one to drink fresh and assess, and the other to age. So if you are up for it, you need to know what beer styles you can sit on and what flavor profiles within these beer styles make for optimal aging potential. Very broadly speaking, beers that are (1) darker and (2) high in alcohol tend to be the beers that do well in the cellar. However, there are always exceptions to this as I’ll get to shortly.
Barleywines, Belgian Quads/Dubbels, and high ABV Scotch Ales are perfect for the cellar. They generally range from 9% to upwards of 20% in some cases, they are darker in complexion, and they often do not have a distinct hop profile that you need to worry about fading. An important thing to note though is that American Barleywines are hopped heavily and depending on the alpha vs beta acid hop profile, extended cellaring can cause oxidized flavours of wet cardboard. It’s not like you can know this simply by tasting it, but if the brewery writes on the bottle that it’s meant for aging then you are probably good. However, my rule is that if I’m getting a ton of hop aromas, I’m not going to age the beer. It will probably be better fresh. If the hops are all in the bitterness, this is actually a good thing and will help the beer over time, in my opinion.
What you can expect from these styles is a softening of sharpness over a short period of time (1yr), with less bitterness, more round characteristics and a bit more harmony of flavours. When you start pushing to 3+ years is where things start to really change, with bitterness falling off a lot, the body thinning out, and you have a ton of that fortified wine thing happening. Some examples work better than others, and how much you enjoy these flavours will really dictate your sweet spot.
Another thing is phenols. Belgian yeasts that are used in Quads/Dubbels produce phenols that carry spicy flavors of clove and cardamom (it’s that “Belgian” flavor people talk about). These phenols fade over time and are slowly replaced with sherry and port-like flavors. So, if you like the spicy notes, then long term aging might not be your thing. While if you don’t like them, or don’t care about losing them, then go for it.
Imperial Stouts are a style that many people like to age, including me. However, they are a style that you need to be careful with. Ranging from 9% all the way to upwards of 16+% ABV, this style of big-boy beer isn’t something you ever need to worry about drinking ASAP. However, with more long term aging, the dark roasted malts can start to create umami flavours of soy sauce, which can be very off-putting. Also, long term aging transforms the beer from having a sharp coffee-like profile into a more rounded, sherry thing. In Barleywines and quads, that marriage can work better in my opinion, but like I keep saying, everything about aging beer is a matter of personal taste. For my tastes, going past one year is a risk. It can still be rewarding though, I’ve been blown away with three or four, or even five year old bottles, but many have also gone down the drain.
Belgian Tripels, and Belgian Strong Blond Ales are 9-10% ABV Belgian beers that are blond in color. Their high ABV allows for aging potential, however they are not as popular cellar beers as the Belgian Quad given the colour and flavour profile. When fresh, they are sharp yet sweet, but balanced, with spicy clove and pear flavours. Over time, just like the Quads, they loose their spicy phenolic character and develop an intense floral honey-like profile.
Wild Beers are a tricky bunch. It is a catch-all term that doesn’t really mean anything aside from the beer containing “Wild Yeast”, i.e. Brettanomyces. It’s tough to separate these into categories because many sour beers, including Lambic, definitely contain wild yeast, but I’ll go to those shortly. What I’m referring to here are Wild Saisons, Brett Beers and Barrel-Aged Brett Beers in general. These beers tend to be subtle and not too intense. The brett can add a fruity and leathery character, and some have a real barnyard aroma that can be described as horsey or musty. Personally I find aging these beers a bit of a coin toss. Maybe there is a science to it, but I haven’t cracked it yet. Over extended aging, I’ve seen beers like this improve drasitcally and turn into something amazing, or some just change subtly, while others are so overtaken with an intense Brett funk that they aren’t drinkable. Brettanomyces helps slow oxidation, so these beers can be good candidates for aging, however as I mentioned above sometimes things don’t go well. Personally, I wouldn’t go past one year with most of these beers.
Flanders Red and Oud Bruin are malty Belgian oak-aged sour beers that have a sweet and acidic profile that is slightly roasty, rather acetic, and are rich yet refreshing. These beers do quite well over time, bringing in lots of extra fruity vinous notes, while the big malty base holds up to time. The quintessential Flander’s Red is Rodenbach which is from Belgium and available in Quebec and Ontario (at times). There are many local examples too. I would say these are safe styles to do some fun long-term aging to see how they evolve.
American (Barrel-Aged) Sours can do well with time. These highly acidic beers are inoculated with bacteria and wild yeast, which helps the beer over time. However, these beers are almost always fruited, and like we spoke about earlier, adjuncts fade over time. They won’t drop off as quickly as a Berliner Weiss, but they will loose some brightness over the years, so that’s something to consider if you lay these down to rest. I have sat on various versions of these beers for a few years, but I’ve never really properly experimented with long term aging. What I have noticed is that they don’t change as quickly as other beers.
Lambic is special. It’s exclusively brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Brewers ferment the beer spontaneously by exposing it to microflora living in the environment around them (as apposed to fermenting with the cultured yeast strains you would find in other styles). Lambic is produced with 2/3 malted barley and 1/3 raw, unmalted wheat, aged hops, and is placed in a Koelschip (an open-top, flat vessel for cooling wort) in order to cool and get inoculated with the wild yeasts and bacteria living in the region. It’s then aged in oak barrels for at least a year before being blended into gueuze or other styles. Gueuze, which is a subset of lambic, is a blend of aged lambic, ranging from one to three years (generally) and is bottle conditioned to produce a livelier carbonation than in most unblended lambics. The microflora of the region, coupled with generations upon generations of brewing and blending experience, make these beers truly unique, and something that can’t be reproduced anywhere else in the world. Until you taste one, you can’t truly understand the delicious and somewhat bizarre flavour profile surrounding these beers. They are highly acidic, dry, and exceptionally fruity, coupled with musty and dusty aromatics that are often best described as smelling and tasting like barnyard, dank basement, or horse blanket. What makes these beers unique also allows them to age brilliantly for extremely long periods of time. As always, it’s a matter of taste, but Lambic ages slowly and gracefully like a bottle of wine. As I said earlier, fruit can fade over time, so the fruited Lambic is arguably better fresh, however many still sit on them for decades. In many ways, Lambic doesn’t seem like something that would age well given that they are generally around the 5-6% range, but trust me when I say that these do well over the years.
Where to store your beer is a good question. If you want your beer to oxidize slowly, and taste as “fresh” as possible, keep them in your fridge. This is essential for beers that are hop forward (IPAs), however if we are talking about more long term storage, or if you simply don’t have the luxury to store beer in your fridge at all, then a cellar is ideal. If you don’t have a basement or a cellar, then a closet or a space in a room with the least temperature fluctuation is ideal.
I’ve just talked a lot about which styles of beer I believe do well over time, but let’s now dive into a few specific examples from my own cellar. I’ll be drinking two bottles of the same beer, however, they will be different vintages, quite far apart in years. I will be comparing Dieu du Ciel! Solstice D’Hiver, Rodenbach Caractère Rouge, and Dieu du Ciel! Péché Mortel. I feel like these choices will give you a good idea about how certain beer styles evolve – also, this is what I had on hand 😉
Dieu du Ciel! – Solstice D’hiver
Montreal’s own Dieu du Ciel! is magic. I say this not because of their years and years of brewing revolutionary beers in Quebec – which is very much the case – but because despite being in small 341ml bottles with twist-off caps, their beers age better than any other brewery I’ve experienced. I’d also say that out of their extensive portfolio of breathtaking beers, their top for aging is Solstice d’Hiver, an American inspired Barleywine.
When it comes to aging Solstice d’Hiver, it’s not my first rodeo. A few friends and I did one of our first ever vertical tastings with this beer (drinking various vintages of a particular beer in one session). If you’re interested, I wrote a whole article about that night. You can access it here.
As I mentioned above, Barleywines are a great beer for sitting on. This particular version of Solstice d’Hiver is their bourbon barrel-aged edition which spends about a year in the barrel prior to being bottled. This mean that not only is the beer “pre-aged”, but the barrel imparts amazing flavours of vanilla, oak, and all things bourbon. This edition is arguable perfection the moment it’s bottled, however, it continues to evolve over time and depending on your tastes, one could say it gets even better. What I have here is Solstice d’Hiver Bourbon 2013 and Solstice d’Hiver Bourbon 2020.
Solstice D’hiver Bourbon 2013
Up front the nose is all candy, with layers of raisin, port, and general fortified wine aromas. Lots of sherry layers come through, delivering some serious oxidized smells, but not overly so. Over-ripe cherries and hints cardboard meet vanilla bourbon complexity. It’s a touch floral and a bit soapy as well. On the palate, layers of raisin and sherry sweetness mix with an unfortunate hint of cardboard. The bourbon is still there, but not quite are forward as I recall. The bitterness is still impressively present, cutting through the sweetness – and alongside the booze burn, it’s balanced nicely.
Solstice D’hiver Bourbon 2020
The nose on the “fresher” version delivers rich banana and nuttiness, with lots of oak and bourbon vanilla layers. It retains much more of that toasted malt character instead of that ripe fruit thing in the older bottle. The vanilla is huge, with layers of chocolate, figs and dates coming through as well. The palate on this 2020 bottle has a stronger caramel presence, and is almost doughy, with big layers of raisins and milk chocolate. The body is richer as well, and stickier, delivering lovely layers of bourbon and oak. Light oak tannins add further depth and help cut through the sugars.
Both of these were great and provide such a different experience from each other, however, for my personal tastes I don’t think either are in their “perfect” state. The 2020 has a doughy banana thing and the 2013 is a touch too floral and soapy, with an over abundance of sherry. Again though, and I really can’t state this enough, everyone’s palate is different, and finding the sweet spot for aging beer is entirely subjective and a personal journey.
Rodenbach – Caractère Rouge
Second up is Caractère Rouge from Rodenbach. Rodenbach is a Belgian-based brewery who make the quintessential Flander’s Red ales which all other examples of the style are measured against. This particular beer is created with the addition of fresh cherries, raspberries, and cranberries. When I first started to get into beer I manged to land this bottle and it stayed with me for about 10 years, from apartment to apartment. This seemed like a good time to dive in!
What I have here is a 2011 Batch 2, and honestly, I’m not exactly sure of the vintage of the fresher one – I’d say something around the 2018 area.
Caractère Rouge 2011, b2 17
The nose is incredibly fruity, with rich jammy notes and sour Cherry Blasters candy. It’s deep and rich in aroma, with some nice sherry and port layers, but nothing over the top, which is surprising for a 10 year-old beer.
The palate is sweet, delivering layers of big jammy fruits while not coming off oxidized in a negative way. It seems a touch thin, but the roundness of the flavours here are amazing. Huge cherry and raspberry compliment a solid but subtle acidity that breathes life into the malty base. Vinous notes bring in fortified wine and sherry sweetness, while a tart and tannic finish cleans everything up nicely. Truly amazing how well this held up.
Caractère Rouge 2018 (?)
The nose on the recent vintage is zestier, with more bright fruits instead of that jamminess on the older bottle. Sharp and bright raspberry aromatics mixed with sweet cherries. The nose carries far less candied fruits and more freshness, while still being rich and vinous.
The tang factor is stronger here, and again, carries a brighter berry flavour that provides a zesty profile – it’s more on the refreshing side of things. Lots of cherry, some raspberry, and cranberry tartness brings so much fruit to the table, which definitely helps cut through the rich malt base. The acidity isn’t particularly intense, but does provide a nice level of sourness to cut through things.
This was definitely a positive experience and I would recommend playing with aging not only this bottle, but all their products. Rodenbach can now be purchased not only at your local beer store around Quebec, but even grocery stores (I’m not sure about this particular bottle though). For those in Ontario, they are often stocked in the LCBO.
Dieu du Ciel! – Péché Mortel Bourbon
I could write a hundred articles about Dieu du Ciel! Péché Mortel. This coffee-infused imperial stout is one of the best examples of the style, and probably my all time favorite beer. It has an entire day dedicated to it worldwide, and has had countless variants; from being aged in different types of barrels, to different types of coffee, brewed with the addition of all kinds of complimentary adjuncts like coconut or cacao, and even has had fruit added to it (although personally, I don’t recommend those).
Under normal circumstances I actually wouldn’t recommend aging beer that has coffee in it. As I mentioned earlier, coffee not only fades over time, but can also start to add vegetal flavor to the beer – green pepper in particular. However, I also mentioned that Dieu du Ciel! is magical, and Péché Mortel is no exception. I’ve had countless versions of this beer over countless age periods, and on the most part, they are always either still good, or at least still interesting. Just like the Solstice d’Hiver from earlier, both versions of Péché Mortel that I’ll be talking about are the bourbon barrel-aged additions. I will be again comparing 2013 with 2020.
Péché Mortel Bourbon 2013
The nose on this older bottle begins with earthy coffee alongside some ashy layers. Extremely dark chocolate aromatics come through as well, delivering some subtle fruity elements – cherry in particular. Vinous port-like sweetness emerges on the nose as well. It seems to no longer carry a ton of bourbon, but there is definitely still a vanilla and general spirit thing happening. Out of the gate on the palate, the bitterness is definitely more subdued than normal, and again, the chocolatey flavours are different now. Instead of that frothy mocha-cappuccino thing you get in the fresh version, this is more on the fruity side, with a vinous backdrop that gives some sweet sherry layers. The coffee is still present, and because this beer is normally so bitter, it really held up beautifully over the years. I feel like this has likely seen better days, but it it still bangin’ and is just so impressive given that it’s a 9 year old beer!
Péché Mortel Bourbon 2020
Right off the bat, the nose on the 2020 is dramatically different. More mocha and doughey cake-like aromatics come through with all kinds of milk chocolate, which is further complimented by rich vanilla bourbon sweetness. I could live inside the aromas of this beer. On the palate I’m hit with a far sharper profile in comparison to the 2013. Bright chocolate-forward coffee layers mix with a big vanilla bourbon complexity. It’s sweet, but balanced as always, and the year this spent in the barrel helps round things off perfectly. Light oak tannins clean the rich malt presence, while milk chocolate and vanilla balance the sharpness.
Dieu du Ciel! is an institution, and for me, Péché Mortel is it’s spokesperson. I adore this beer in all it’s forms. If you’re interested, I’ve written about it several times and have dedicated two entire articles about it’s aging potential. If you are interested, you can read one here and and the second one here.
First off, I want to say thank you for reading through this very lengthy article. This has been a very long post to write, and I have been working on it for the better part of a year now. Aging beer is something that many are interested in, but there are not a ton of resources out there for those that want to dabble in it. I hope my personal experience with aging beer over the last ten years helps a few people understand when and why they should or shouldn’t age beer.
After all this I will leave you with a couple of points I’ve touched on several times within this article. Most, if not all beer can and should arguably be best consumed fresh. That said, there are several styles that not only do just fine with some time on them, but some can (in my opinion) improve over time. However, it is always a personal and subjective experience that you must discover on your own. How much do you like or dislike sherry flavors? How much do you like or dislike a sharp booze burn? Or even, how much you like or dislike “green” flavors in your beer? Whether it’s the “green” hop-burn of newly canned contemporary NEIPA or the “green” flavours of a very young Gueuze. Understanding what you appreciate is always the best way to avoid having to drain pour a beer you’ve dedicated years to. Good luck! And remember, don’t take it too seriously, it’s just beer!