RESPECT YOUR ELDER: KEEP COLD, DRINK FRESH, DO NOT AGE! Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner and brewmaster at Russian River Brewing Company (Santa Rosa, California), plastered this (and many similar) warnings on the label of his double IPA, Pliny the Elder. They all center on the fact that he empathically discourages people from aging this beer. And he has a point, as one of the key events to occur in an aging beer is the fading of hops taste, aroma, and bitterness, something that’s rather detrimental to such beers as double IPAs.
And the fact of the matter is that while cellaring is rapidly gaining in popularity and can do incredible things for the right beer, the vast majority of beer on the market has no business being aged. Most don’t meet the prerequisites to survive a turn in the cellar without going stale, and even more bear qualities that are best enjoyed fresh and will only become muted over time.
When it comes to the prerequisites, the beer needs to possess one of the following three characteristics: strong, sour, or smoked. The high ABV, acidity, and smoke phenols act as preservatives that slow the aging of beer. And when a beer becomes too old, it loses its vibrancy and takes on stale flavors.
But the lack of a strong, sour, or smoked “preservative” isn’t the only reason to drink a beer fresh. When determining whether to age or not to age, watch out for these other cellar no-nos.
As I mentioned above, the bitterness, aroma, and taste that you get from hops will slowly fade over time. Some aspects are more sensitive than others. For instance, the flavors derived from myrcene (which gives beer that distinctive green “hoppy” flavor) and humulene (spicy and herbal) are especially fleeting. On the other hand, the hops compounds partially responsible for “juicy” flavors found in New School IPAs, such as linalool (floral-citrusy) and geraniol (floral-rose, geranium), are longer lasting, but not in the long-term cellaring sense. And as hops bitterness diminishes, beers are often left tasting overly sweet, lacking that necessary contrasting aspect.
With the hoppiness gone, beers such as IPAs, double IPAs, and even at times American barleywines are often left seemingly incomplete because the brewer constructed the flavor profile with hops as the centerpiece. Compounding the issue, as the hops recede, studies have shown that many of their initial flavors transform into trans-2-nonenal, the compound primarily responsible for stale, papery flavors in old beer. So, not only are these beers losing a critical component of what makes them special, they are gaining a decidedly negative aspect as well.
The fruity smell and taste you encounter in beer often comes from chemical compounds called esters. There is a huge spectrum of esters found in beer, ranging from isoamyl acetate (banana) to ethyl hexanoate (apple) to ethyl butyrate (tropical fruits), with many others in between.
Esters are often formed during primary fermentation and help to give beer its characteristic taste, such as the banana presence in German Weisse beers or the pear and tree-fruit aspects in Belgian ales. Over time, most of these esters are broken down in a process called hydrolysis, causing the flavor to slowly fade. Generally, other esters will be created in their place, but they typically have a wine-like or port-like flavor.
So, if you’re considering aging a beer that has a strong fruity presence when young, be aware that those flavors will most likely dull over time. In many beers, this bright, fruit component is key and allowing it to fade via cellaring causes a beer to become a shell of its former self.
In unfiltered beers made with wheat, one of the most attractive features is the full, chewy mouthfeel that comes from suspended wheat proteins. Anybody who’s had an authentic Belgian wit straight from the source can attest to the difference this makes.
However, those wheat proteins don’t like to stay suspended in a beer and over time will slowly drop out and form a sediment cake on the bottom. Just as when hops disappear from an IPA, once a wheat beer’s full mouthfeel dies off, it loses much of what once made it great. This is especially true when aging saisons with a strong wheat component.
Something else to be wary of when it comes to aging wheat-based beers is the fact that wheat malts are typically high in lipids. Given long enough, lipids can lead to, you guessed it, the dreaded stale, cardboard-like oxidative flavors.
Gueuze and other lambic-based beers, whose grain bills are up to 40 percent wheat, are among the few exceptions to cellaring wheat beers. These beers, which are swimming with the oxygen-scavenging wild yeast, Brettanomyces, aren’t very susceptible to oxidation and can avoid the cardboard pitfalls associated with old wheat beers. (Not only that, but they’re prized for their dry, champagne-like body and aren’t expected to have a full body.)
Twist-Off or Swing-Top Oxygen Seepage
Compared to the typical “pry-off” caps, twist-offs have an inferior seal that, with age, will slowly allow oxygen to seep into a beer, speeding the aging process and causing (drumroll…) stale flavors! Luckily though, twist-off caps are pretty much a thing of the past in the craft-beer world. But it is something to keep in mind when debating whether to age a vintage twist-off bottle any further. Probably more importantly, be wary of swing tops, as the material used in their rubber gaskets is especially susceptible to oxygen seepage over time.
While some beers just beg to be aged, every beer has an optimal drinking window, and for the majority of cases, it’s “as fresh as possible.” Know which beers are going to benefit from maturation time and which will not. After all, an IPA is too beautiful a thing to waste.