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Worth the wait

Publish Date: 05 May 2016

Authored by: James Smith

Cellaring isn’t just for wine lovers anymore.

The mantra “Fresh is best” is well worn in the beer world. For the vast majority of beers it’s true, but there are exceptions. Hold onto a hoppy pale ale for a year and those welcoming hop aromas will diminish, if not disappear entirely. The beer may present as “skunked”, tired or have characteristics akin to cardboard, particularly if it wasn’t packaged carefully and hasn’t been handled or stored well.

Yet with certain beer styles, careful ageing can improve what’s in the bottle, or at least change its character and nuances in pleasant and interesting ways. Typically, beers that are darker and higher in alcohol – strong Belgian ales, barley wines and imperial stouts – work well because alcohol acts as a preservative. Sour or acidic beers – lambic, gueuze, saison, Berliner Weisse, for example – are suited to cellaring too, with lactic acid an ageing beer’s friend. “I can now pull out two or three vintages of the same beer and compare side by side,” says award-winning beer writer Luke Robertson of the Ale of a Time website and podcast. He has a studiously documented collection of 100-plus beers. “[The older ones] aren’t always better, but it’s educational. There’s so much that can change in a couple of years. Even two different bottles of the same beer from the same year can age differently.

Aside from selecting beers with the best chance of evolving well over time (and having the patience to leave them alone), what else needs to be taken into account? Your chosen spot should be cool and dark, and keep temperature fluctuation and moisture to a minimum. Light will quickly turn a beer bad, so while dark bottles are far superior to clear ones, they still need to be kept in the dark. Capped bottles are best stored standing, while if you take a lead from the iconic lambic brewers of Belgium, you may prefer to store corked bottles horizontally.

Cool, calm and collected

Given few people have an actual cellar handy, the coolest, darkest spot in your home could work. Some collectors have invested in wine chillers they keep at around 10 to 12 degrees, while others have rigged standard fridges to operate at higher-than-normal temperatures. Luke’s stash is kept in a tin-lined cupboard in his shed where, due to its low-lying position, it remains cool, even after a run of hot days. Most of his collection are lambics and gueuzes [blended old and young lambic beers] that can come with best-before dates 20 years in the future – a far cry from beer’s more typical 12 months. But he has also tried other big beers, including a three-year-old barley wine from New Zealand, The Artist from West Coast, which was “so thick and gorgeous” and delivered one of his most memorable beer experiences.

In Australia, the best-known beer designed for cellaring is the annual Coopers Vintage Ale, while Red Hill on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula makes the most of its past vintages, kept in old apple cool-stores. Each year, owners Dave and Karen Golding hold an event where they pull out various vintages of their seasonals and, last winter, sold six-packs containing the current batch of their sought-after Imperial Stout alongside a bottle from each of the five previous years. “We started putting away five to 10 cases every year to see how they would develop,” says Dave. “Now we’ve got Christmas Ale going back to 2005 and Imperial Stout to 2006 and it’s really interesting. The beers change a lot. The hops drop back and the malt background comes on. There’s some oxidation.”

Normally, oxidation is unwanted in a beer, but it can be welcome in the right aged beers, helping them develop sweeter vinous, nutty or even sherry-like characters. Time can also help boozier beers mellow – some brewers will hold onto imperial stouts or barley wines for months on end before releasing them.

Aged beers can also experience peaks and troughs. In a blind tasting of Christmas Ales in which the tasters – all involved in beer in some way – were unaware there were several vintages the beer among the line-up, the scores dropped as the beers got older, only to rise again in year five.

So, while cellaring the right beers in the right way can be fascinating and educational, you could still find yourself pouring a once-fantastic four-year-old imperial stout down the drain – and wondering if it would have been good again a year later. “It’s like playing the stock exchange,” says Luke. “Only invest if you can afford to lose!”

Next article: 'terroir' is another term not only reserved for wine. Check out James Smith's article on beers with a true sense of place.

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