To Sip or to Cellar? What to Do When Your Beer Is Worth Aging
Cellaring alcohol is no longer the exclusive right of the wine lover. The ever-increasing masses of beer enthusiasts are dedicating more and more room in the backs of their closets for aging cherished bottles.
But as with wine, not all beers were built to store. If you're curious to taste the benefits of aging for certain craft beers, "Dr." Bill Sysak is a resource worth consulting. As Stone Brewing Co.'s craft beer ambassador, Sysak most often can be found at festivals and events around Southern California sharing his wide knowledge. He's also the proud owner of one of the most comprehensive beer cellars on the planet: upwards of 2,500 bottles, some extending back half a century.
So how do you decide which beers are worth cellaring and which ones should be drunk now?
"You want to look for beers that are 8 percent ABV or stronger, preferably bottle-conditioned, the darker the better," Sysak says. "There are exceptions, of course. Unique sour beers, for example, are fabulous [for aging]."
Belgians have been producing bottle-conditioned offerings for as long as beer has been bottled, taking already complex beers and finishing them off with an additional round of yeast and sugar before sealing. Both sweet and sour Belgian-style ales are designed to evolve as they age.
West Coast IPAs, on the other hand, are one beer style that should never be aged. Stuffed with bitter acids that begin disintegrating immediately upon bottling, the very characteristics that make these beers great fade quickly. IPAs, as well as pale ales, pilsners and most other common styles, should be consumed in short order.
Dr. Bill Sysak
"Ninety-five percent of craft beers need to be consumed as fresh as possible," Sysak says. "But there's definitely a selection of beers that can age from a couple of years to 20 years."
When you're ready to take the plunge, remember that cellaring is a game of trial and error. For optimal results, Sysak recommends purchasing in bulk. Buy a case of a stronger beer and try a bottle fresh. Try another bottle every three to six months, until it reaches its peak.
If buying a whole case of beer is out of your price range (or you're too casual a drinker to justify it), Stone recently released a beer that's like training wheels for the aspiring cellarer. The brewery's Enjoy After series is a line of IPAs brewed with Brettanomyces, a wild yeast strain that can introduce added complexity with time. Each release is labeled with a specific date, denoting the very earliest it should be uncorked.
Beyond that, it's a safe bet that any hearty imperial Russian stout or high-ABV barleywine will evolve well with time. El Segundo's Standard Crude, Strand's Second Sleep, Smog City's barrel-aged beers and any of Firestone Walker's Anniversary brews are local standouts that will take kindly to a dark corner of your home or apartment.
"Keep them in a controlled environment away from light damage, and keep the temperature range stable," says Sysak as a final offering of advice. Exposure to light and temperature fluctuations are devastating to the cellaring process. "Stay consistent, even if it's 70. You don't want it to go from 50 to 90."
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