Americans are constantly being told that the only beer worth drinking is served ice-cold and brewery fresh. However, certain styles of beer can hold up to (and benefit from) extended aging. Savvy consumers are starting their own beer cellars in every city and small town in America. Vintage beer is growing in popularity -- and with good reason: The journey is as much fun as the destination.
Understanding how beer ages is the first step to successfully starting a beer cellar. Rick Seibt, director of brewing operations at Willoughby Brewing Company, is a certified cicerone, the beer equivalent of a sommelier. "Nearly all of the aging comes about from the introduction of oxygen to the beer," he says. "Hop essential oils are the most fragile, as these are easily and quickly lost during storage. Oxidation causes chemical degradation of these oils. Malt character is also affected by oxidation. The beer takes on a sweeter flavor profile, with honey notes in lighter beers and sherry-like in darker, richer malt beers."
What styles of beer embrace oxidation? A general rule of thumb is that dark beer with higher alcohol content ages better, but some average-ABV sour beers can survive for decades. Bottle-conditioned beer has live yeast that can lead to pronounced changes over time while pasteurized beer might not mature as well. Beer with pronounced hops, spices or coffee will fade quickly and generally shouldn't be aged if those flavors are desired.
Cavalier Distributing's Rick Kennedy manages Ohio sales for brands like Stone, Dogfish Head and Three Floyds. He has found success aging stouts and sour beers, particularly Belgian Lambic and Gueuze. "I stick with bottles that have more of an acidic pH and tend to be darker," he explains. "I'm obviously not a fan of aging Double IPAs. Select barleywines age well too."
A dark, cool space works best, but even kitchen cabinets and bedroom closets can produce acceptable results. The warmer the temperature, the quicker the subtle flavors fade, so extreme heat should be avoided. Kennedy recommends storing beer "as it's shipped," which means the majority of non-corked beer should sit upright instead of in a wine rack.
To complicate matters, aging similar styles from different breweries can produce different results. Indeed, even two bottles from the same batch can age differently. "It depends on how well they bottle the beer – how good is the crown, the seal, the cork?" notes Kennedy.
Jason Presser, craft specialist at Superior Beverage Group, believes cellaring is more of an art than science. It's also a bit of a gamble. "I've wasted thousands [of dollars] cellaring beer then throwing it out or giving it away," he cautions. "It's a part of learning what to cellar. You think, 'This is an Imperial Stout, it will cellar great,' but that's not always the case."
Kennedy puts it a bit more delicately. "Everybody goes on a journey with it. You have to be willing to let those beers go and take the chance of losing money."
Presser believes that the best way to find the sweet spot is to buy multiple bottles and drink them over time. Another approach is to buy a bottle each year, creating a "vertical" of different vintages. What is the right way to sample a vertical? Kennedy believes there isn't one. "It's nice to go from the freshest beer to the oldest beer; then, another night, go from the oldest to the freshest. It's like going from summer to winter, then winter to spring. You really get to experience the beer in different ways and it may change your perspective."
For those lacking the space or patience, vintage beers have begun appearing on menus at beer-friendly restaurants. The Winking Lizard is one of five Orval Ambassadors in the U.S. Each location features both fresh and oud (aged) Orval on the bottle menu. Chef-owner Demetrious Atheneos of the Oak Barrel in Valley View started purchasing beers to cellar more than a year before the brasserie opened. He offers four different vintages of JW Lee's barleywine and a two-year-old Stone Imperial Russian Stout. Lakewood's Buckeye Beer Engine carries a 2010 Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien Sour Ale, a 2010 Struise Pannepot Reserva Quadruple, and even a Dupont organic cider from 2009.
Retailers also are seeing increased interest. Burl Lane, manager of Lizardville Beer Store & Whiskey Bar in Bedford Heights, has seen a change in customers who shop at his store. "They come in and ask us what ages well, what they should put in their cellar," he says. "Quite a few customers come in and ask us if we have any vintage beers too. For a while, it was all about IPAs and freshness, but people are starting to talk about which beers age well and it's a beautiful thing to see."