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Cellaring Dos and Don’ts

Patrick Dawson, the author of “Vintage Beer, A Taster’s Guide to Brews that Improve Over Time,” weighs in on best practices for cellaring.

Emily Hutto 3 years ago

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Despite expert predictions, beers always seem to surprise us with what they can do in their old age. That’s the beauty, and the mystery, of fermentation science. Here are some of those surprises and exceptions.

DO cellar beer with high amounts of residual malt sugar.

After a beer’s primary fermentation, the more sugar left behind, the better that beer will age. Dawson calls those residual sugars “oxygen sponges” because they absorb oxygen in beer, which delays inevitable oxidation and therefore, off-flavors. Oxidation by-products adhere to malt protein and cause them to drop out of the beer, thinning its body over time. “Residual sugars help by supplanting the thinning malt profile as well as by providing a base for the new, developing sherry flavors to stand on.”

DON’T exclude drier styles of beer.

Relatively high residual sugar confers an advantage when aging beers, Garrett Oliver says in The Oxford Companion to Beer, “but some dry styles can fare well. Strong dark Belgian Trappist and abbey ales, for example, tend to age well, despite their relative lack of residual sugar.”

The Trappist beers age well because they have a high-phenolic character with a large amount of melanoidins, Dawson says, which produce rich flavors that make up for lack of residual sugar in the beers. The other exception, he says, is “crisp, lambic-style beers, whose wild yeasts act as an antioxidant and whose flavor profile is not malt-centric or hurt by a fading malt body.”

DO add imperial stouts to your cellar.

Commonly brewed with dark, roasted malts, imperial stouts yield dark chocolate, dried fruit, and even berry flavors over time.

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DON’T leave them there too long.

The roasted malts that make these beers so flavorful also shorten their cellaring time. High acidity makes them more susceptible to autolysis, which creates meaty flavors like ink and soy sauce. Almost all imperial stouts can benefit from a year of aging, Dawson recommends, and beyond that another two or three years at most.

DO drink wheat beers quickly, rather than aging them.

Due to oxidation, the wheat proteins in beer tend to drop out of suspension after six months or so, leaving a clearer, thinner beer. For beers whose profile is designed to be wheat-forward, this is a bad thing, Dawson says. “Because of a tendency to lose a critical component of their overall makeup, wheat beers . . . don’t make good candidates for cellaring,” he explains, adding that wheat beers are high in lipids, which tend to create stale flavors in the cellar.

DON’T rush wheat-based styles fermented with Brettanomyces.

“Lambic and gueuze [and sometimes saisons] are wheat beers and, in my opinion, are some of the best vintage beers of all time,” Dawson says. There are also plenty of Brett saisons [fermented with Brettanomyces] brewed with wheat that can benefit from some time in the cellar. [Because] the beers have Brett in them, and [because] Brett has such a voracious appetite, given enough time, it will eat most anything. So having those difficult-to-ferment sugars in there will keep the beers from becoming watery and thin. In a way, brewing these beers with wheat is like a runner carbo-loading before a marathon.”

In Vintage Beer, A Taster’s Guide to Brews that Improve Over Time, Dawson cites another carbo-loading example: the traditional German beer style Berliner Weisse. The beer is traditionally brewed with_ Lactobacillus;_ “however there is usually some Brett integrated in the fermentation process, allowing the style to develop in the cellar.”

DO enjoy hoppy beers while fresh.

Hops lose their intensity on the shelf, and thus IPAs and other hops-forward styles aren’t brewed with cellaring in mind. The high levels of alpha acids in American hops, such as Amarillo and Cascade hops, are easily oxidized, which can make for stale, papery off-flavors.

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DON’T underestimate the flavors that are left as certain hoppy beers age.

High in beta acids, however, English hops such as Kent Goldings tend to maintain bitterness over time and can even bring new fruit flavors, such as cherry or pineapple, to a beer as they age.

DO give barleywines some time.

Make that English-style barleywines. Dawson calls them the grandaddy of all vintage beers, designated so because they are “beers built to age.” Their robust malt character, coupled with low attenuating yeast strains, let them thrive in the cellar.

DON’T give American barleywines as much time.

American barlywines hit the palate dry, hoppy, and hot, coming across more as double IPAs. Aged a year, says Dawson, these beers will maintain a good amount of hoppiness but lose enough to taste more like a traditional barleywine, with dried fruit and sherry flavors.

Learn the four cornerstones of an ideal cellar and how the more popular beer-cellar options stack up and keep up with the latest trends in brewing and craft beer in the October/November 2015 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Subscribe today so you don’t miss an issue!

DO give oak-aged beers time to mature.

“As the malt, yeast, and hops flavors go on a roller-coaster ride,” Dawson says in Vintage Beer, the oak flavors remain comparatively stable. More often than not, those oak flavors will complement the newly derived flavors in aged beer.

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DON’T expect the same stability for other flavors on top of the oak.

Studies show that oak nuances such as vanilla, coconut, and clove flavors are “somewhat susceptible” to oxygen, Dawson reports. They eventually tighten with age, vanilla flavors softening first.

DO age “imperial” beers.

It’s certainly advantageous to cellar beers that are more than 8 percent ABV. Alcohol acts as a preservative, so higher ABV beers have more time to develop complexities.

DON’T ignore sour and smoke beers since those act as preservatives that prolong aging, too.

“I always say for a beer to age, it needs to have one of the three Ss; strong, sour, or smoked,” Dawson says. “A strong beer, above 8 percent ABV, ages great, but the acidity in a sour beer, or smoke phenols in a rauchbier, can replace the high alcohol to make a beer cellar-worthy.” Great sour examples would be lambic or gueuze, usually less than 5 percent ABV, such as Cantillon [Brasserie Cantillon Brouwerij, Belgium] or Drie Fontienen [Brouwerij Drie Fontienen, Belgium]. On the smoked side of things are the German rauchbiers or smoked porters usually less than 6 percent ABV, such as Aecht Schlenkerla or Alaskan Brewing’s Smoked Porter.

Like all rules, those of beer cellaring are often made to be broken. To learn them takes time, patience, and a lot of trial and error. “After a few years of mostly painful results, I began researching some of the science behind aging to be able to better choose which beers to age,” Dawson says. “This research then led me to write _Vintage Beer _to help others avoid the same mistakes I made.”

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