This might come as news to novice beer drinkers, but it’s true. Beer, like wine, has the ability to age gracefully, developing deep flavor notes and complex aromas far beyond what’s initially bottled. I spoke with Molly Gunn, co-owner of The Porter Beer Bar and purveyor of their extensive vintage beer list housed in a custom-made cellar, about starting up a personal collection.
Vintaging beer (or cellaring, as it’s sometimes called) can be a hit-or-miss experiment. Not everything gets better with time, Gunn cautions. IPA fans take note—hops are best fresh, so don’t be shy about drinking now. Styles that stand the test of time: high gravity options like strong ales, imperial stouts, barleywines, and sours. Lots of sours. “I always wish I’d bought more sour beer,” Gunn says of The Porter’s collection. “It ages forever but people drink it almost faster than I can age it.”
First things first—whatever you age, Gunn says, try to buy at least two bottles. You may want to try one in six months, and the other in a year. Also, know what the beer tastes like fresh so you can compare the changes. And, keep track. Most stouts and barleywines max out after five years, while sours can go fifteen to 20.
Let’s talk the vintage process. The key to vintaging beers is to age the ones that you like and that age well. If you’ve tried a beer fresh and it’s over eight percent and/or a sour beer (sour beers, even though they’re super low gravity can age forever), I recommend trying to age it for a year or two. Also, if you buy the latest barleywine and you think it’s really hot because you can taste all the alcohol, try aging it. You could like it more as the alcohol mellows in flavor.
When do you know it’s time to get a cellar going? Most people end up with cellars when they run out of room. Or their significant others tell them they’d like to store food in the refrigerator. Aside from a designated beer refrigerator, those little wine fridges work great for the most part. Regular refrigerators pull moisture out of the air, so not good if you have corked beer.
Beer fridges range from the low hundreds to the thousands. What options are there if you’re not quite ready to bite the bullet? A dark environment. Light negatively effects beer. And keep things cool, that’s our challenge in Atlanta. You want a steady temperature ideally between 60 and 65 degrees, 68 at the most. If you keep your house air-conditioned in the summer and you’ve got a dark closet, that works.
Have you had any vintaging heartbreaks? I’ve had things peak. We experimented aging the Avery Maharaja [an Imperial IPA]. It’s very high gravity but also hoppy, so we knew it was a risk. After six months it was delicious, after a year it was not so good. It wasn’t as bright and citrusy and you don’t realize how much that impacts a high gravity beer. It was disappointing but we still drank it.
Have you ever enjoyed an aged beer that surprised you? For the money, North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin ages amazingly quickly. It’s so different after one year. You can taste a lot more oak.
What have you learned about cellaring beers that you wish you knew earlier? You want to store beer standing up, as opposed to on its side like wine. Yeast floats to the top so if you have the bottle on its side, that creates a larger surface area. Even with the little air that’s in the bottle, the yeast will harden and result in this huge ring of sediment instead of a tiny one had the bottle been stored upright. So, no wine racks.
Let's say you’ve got this amazing beer cellar with bottles in different states of aging and then you have to move. What do you do? Have a party. Drink everything or have your friends drink everything and move boxes.