Vintage Beers
By
Bob Salzgass





Collecting beers for laying down can be a fun and rewarding hobby.  
What's that? You say you thought all beer was best drunk fresh?
As a rule, it's true that beer is best enjoyed before the ravages of light,
heat and time denigrate its flavors and character, but some beers can
actually improve over time becoming more balanced and complex.

However, in an era when bottled beers with "born-on" and "best-by"
dates compete with fresh brew pub beer, you'd better know your beer
before deciding to lay it down for five or more years.

The mass produced beers of today are heat pasteurized and filtered,
which extends their shelf-life, but makes them unsuitable for laying
down.  While pasteurization and filtering stabilize beer and destroy
bacteria potentially harmful to its flavor, these processes also prevent
beer from improving over time.  Beers that are appropriate for laying
down have not been through these stabilizing processes and, thus,
exhibit a change in character over time due to chemical and physical
changes such as oxidation, yeast and fermentation, bacterial effects,
cellaring temperature and exposure to light .  

While aging beers is always a hit or miss, the more you know and
understand about the process, the more success you will have when
cellaring your prize beers.

Oxidation
In delicate beers such as light lagers, milds or Pilsners the affects of
oxidation can dominate the flavor and aroma, but in hearty beers like
strong Scotch ales and Trappist ales the vinous character can
enhance the beers by adding flavor and complexity.

Beer enthusiasts have long debated what role bottle size plays in the
maturation of beers. For example, how does the flavor of a vintage
Belgian Scaldis Noel aged in a 25 centiliter bottle compare to the same
beer aged in a 1.5 liter magnum bottle?  Beer in larger bottles has less
exposure to air in the head space relative to the total volume of beer in
the bottle, so the larger bottle reduces the risk of over oxidation.
Nevertheless, do not reject a beer well suited for aging just because it
is in a small bottle.


Yeast and Fermentation
When a beer is bottle-conditioned, meaning it is bottled with live yeast
suspended in the beer, the beer continues to ferment in the bottle, all
the while changing in character.  As the yeast feeds on the residual
sugars in the beer, the beer loses some of its body and becomes
dryer. Even after the yeast runs out of sugar to feed on it contributes to
beer's body, aroma and flavor profile.

While a bottle-conditioned beer is a good candidate to lay down, it is
not imperative.  There are many beers and beer styles that improve
with time despite a lack of live yeast munching away on sugar in the
bottle.

Bacterial Effects
As a rule, bacterial "infection" is not a desirable characteristic in beers
that are best drunk fresh. Indeed, bacterial contamination can
dominate a beer rendering it unpleasantly sour and virtually
undrinkable. (note: no matter what the taste, beer bacterial is safe for
your health.) The sourness is usually derived from wild strains of yeast
or bacteria that hop aboard the beer as it's being brewed or fermented.

It should be noted however that some styles of Belgian beers are
highly prized for their distinct sour or lactic character. In particular,
Belgian Lambic ales employ spontaneous fermentation induced by
wild yeast, which is allowed, indeed invited, into the breweries' open
fermentation vessels.


Cellaring Temperature
The temperature in which beer is stored  plays an important role in its
character. Cold temperatures abate changes to beer during aging,
therefore to reduce the affects of time on most beers, keep it cold.
But if your intent is to transmogrify your beer with age, it is important
to allow it to mature at cellar temperatures ranging from 50-65F with
little fluctuation.

At these temperatures, the yeast, particularly in bottle-conditioned
beer, is warm enough that it can remain active. If conditions become
too cold, the yeast may slow down or become altogether dormant and
if too hot the yeast may die. Likewise, it is important to store your beer
in the dark.  Light can interact with the hops in beer causing your beer
to become light struck or skunky.


Other Rules of Aging

High alcohol beers like barleywines, old ales and strong Scotch ales
are not as susceptible to the negative affects of bacteria. It is more
difficult to detect off flavors imparted by bacteria in a robust, strong
beer than it is in a delicate beer that readily reveals the minutest of
flaws.  Additionally, both hops and smoke have a preservative affect
on beer.

Hops as well as fruit, herbs and spices lose their pungency in beer as
it matures. So, if you're aging a highly hopped Rogue Mogul Ale you
may be pleased to discover that after three years the dominant hop
bitterness has mellowed substantially and your beer is more balanced
and round.

Corked beers should be stored on their side while crowned beers are
best stored upright. As a rule, corked beers run a smaller risk than
crowned beers of leaking at the seal. But corks can and often do
impart a slight musty, aroma and flavor to beers stored on their side.   

Imagine the delights and rewards a vertical tasting of several vintages
of the same brand can offer. Yes, there will probably be some
disappointments, but it will always be interesting and educational. Half
of the fun of laying down beer is the quest to find the perfect beer for
cellaring. The other half, of course, is tasting it at the optimum moment,
but the hardest part is resisting the temptation to drink your vintage
beers before their time.

Cheers!
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Recommended beer styles for laying down:

Barleywines
Old ales
Trappist and abbey ales
Belgian strong ales
Belgian brown and red ales
Belgian lambics and gueuzes
Some India pale ales
Strong double bocks
Smoked beers
Christmas or holiday ales, which are usually high in alcohol
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