DUST on the Bottle

Aging is inevitable. No matter what you do, you’ll get older. This revelation hits home particularly hard as I await the birth of my granddaughter. (She could be here by the time you read this column.) As I pondered my rapidly approaching grandparenthood, I decided to find a beer to purchase, cellar and present to my undoubtedly beautiful granddaughter on her 21st birthday. What to choose and how to cellar? Being a semi-pro, I have answers.

Cellaring beer has much the same effect as laying down bottles of wine; it mellows harsh edges and allows flavors to develop. Not every beer is cellar-able; as a rule, lighter beers should not be aged. Pale ales, most lagers and even IPAs should be enjoyed sooner rather than later. To age these brews is to make them lose the expected hop punch—hops’ oils are volatile and break down quickly.

There are some basic rules to aging beer successfully. One of the most important is to choose brews with higher ABVs—8 percent or greater is a good starting point. This opens the door for Russian Imperial Stouts, dopplebocks and eisbocks as well as Baltic porters and Belgian strong ales. Another rule: malt-forward brews will develop nicely, bringing forth flavors reminiscent of chocolate, nuts and smooth, mellow coffee. Contrary to the first two rules, lambics, Berliner weisses and gueuzes—all sours with relatively low ABVs and malt content—mature beautifully and develop wonderfully complex characters as they age. Some sours can age for more than 20 years
and continue to improve.

Storing these is as important as choosing them. Light and heat are enemies of aging, so it’s best to take Tom Petty’s advice and ‘store it in a cool, dry place’ that’s also dark. Ideally, aging beer should be stored in complete darkness at 50-60°F. If the water table is too high or you can’t afford to dig a cellar, an interior closet works nicely. Just be sure it doesn’t get too warm in there. And unlike wine, happy to be horizontal, beer should be kept upright—even if it’s closed with a cork. This is to ensure residue settles to the bottom of the bottle. It’s especially true of bottle-conditioned beers that may have yeast or sugar added.

So what did I choose to celebrate my forthcoming angel’s 21st birthday? Couldn’t pick just one. First, I’m holding back several bottles of Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout. At 14.7 percent, it should age nicely. I expect that its sweetness will dry out and its booziness will mellow, and the liquid that’s left should be remarkable. Second, I’m setting aside two sours: a Cantillon Cuvée Saint-Gilloise gueuze and a Brouwerij Boon Gueuze Boon. Both should continue to develop in complexity and flavor over the next 21 years.

Whether you plan to cellar a beer for a few years or a few decades, you can be sure it will develop and change in character as time goes by. How you stash your liquid treasures depends on what your expectations are, so follow my tips and find the right methods for you … and your progeny when they come of age.