By Steve Graham
Andy Astor likes serving a two-year-old barleywine in his Chaffee County taproom, but admits aging beer in a home cellar can be hazardous.
“We always say ‘age at your own risk,’” he said. “Beer is best consumed fresh.”
Cellaring beer at home takes a measure of patience and a tolerance for risk. While any beer might go skunky sitting in your cellar, cellaring the right beer for the right amount of time may open delicious new worlds of flavor and aroma, creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Every beer will peak and then deteriorate,” said Jason Yester. “There will be a day when the lactobacillus, pedio, brett, and oak are all in harmony but up until that day the beer was never as good. When you open a bottle like this, all you can do is say ‘wow.’”
Yester is president of Trinity Brewing Company in Colorado Springs.
“Our entire program was designed for beers that age well and ship well,” he said. “My point of view on brewing is that it’s not only our job to bring in a harvest, but it’s also our job to make sure the harvest stores well.”
Yester also stocks two home cellars with beers dating back to 1994. One focuses on the dawn of American imperial beers early this century, and the other includes mostly American Brett and sour beers.
Yester notes that fermentation was originally designed to increase the shelf life of foods and drinks before the advent of refrigerators, and “increased deliciousness was a bonus.”
Finding the right beer and cellaring period is an art involving plenty of trial and error, but there are a few basic guidelines.
Astor is the brand ambassador and former taproom manager at Elevation Beer Company in Poncha Springs. The brewery outside Salida crafts barrel-aged beers, as well as “more drinkable beers for the rancher crowd,” he said. He said those lighter beers are not likely to age well.
On the other hand, some strong and complex beers can develop even more diverse and interesting flavors over time.
“A lot of the higher-gravity, higher-alcohol Belgian styles can do a little better,” Astor said.
Patrick Dawson, a former Denver resident who wrote the book “Vintage Beer,” said a wide range of beers can be cellared — with care.
“Any beer that is either strong, sour, or smoked meets the prerequisite to be cellar-worthy,” he said. “However, just because a beer falls into this style category does not mean it will age well there are a bevy of other aspects that needs to be considered to determine if its worthwhile to age a beer.”
Dawson warns against aging most beers.
“It’s only a tiny fraction that will develop in a positive manner if aged for a year or more, and even among that portion it’s only a very select few that are worth aging for more than three years,” he said.
On the other hand, he has tasted beers with far older vintages.
“The oldest beer I’ve ever had was a bottle of Bass Ratcliff Ale from 1869, and it was a wonderful experience,” Dawson said.
Dawson’s favorite Colorado beer to age is Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale, a winter seasonal.
“I buy a six-pack every year and hold onto it until the next year,” he said. “A year really mellows the booziness out and allows some pleasant notes of stewed plums and sherry to emerge. It’s a great wintertime sipper.”
He also said New Belgium’s La Folie sour brown ale ages well, along with several offerings from Casey Brewing and Crooked Stave.
Yester’s local favorites for aging include Bristol’s Skull n’ Bones Cuvee, New Belgium’s Eric’s Ale, and Rockyard’s Buddha Nuvo.
Astor said Elevation’s Oil Man Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout shifts its flavors with age, as the whiskey, oak and chocolate notes give way.
“Over time the umami, black licorice, leather and tobacco flavors and aromas become more prevalent,” he said.
Similarly, the False Summit Barrel-Aged Quadruple gets less potent and more sweet as it ages.
“Fresh, it drinks like a nice sticky, boozy, tawny port wine and over time the booziness mellows with golden raisin, plum, and cola notes,” he said. “The Trappist yeast spice holds up really well over time.”
In general, many strong beers that age well are likely to lose bitterness and gain sweet, toffee-like aromas and flavors.
“There are a whole host of flavors that you’d never taste in a normal beer: port, figs, bread pudding, candied pineapple,” Dawson said. “These aren’t adjectives you normally use when describing your average pint.”
If you want to spend $8,000 for a hint of bread pudding in your pint, walk-in stainless steel beer refrigerators are available. However, basic cellaring requires nothing more than a cool, dark space with consistent temperatures of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Most crawl spaces would do the trick.
“Too cold and the beer will age at a crawl, too warm and the beer will age too fast and create off flavors,” Dawson said.
The process is really something of an experiment in flavor, so Astor recommends tasting at least one new bottle before storing. “Drink one fresh,” he said. “That’s how the brewers want it.” Then, assuming you have enough patience, open one every few months and take notes.
“A large part of the fun of cellaring is aging several bottles of the same beer and exploring their passage through different points in time,” Yester said.
There is some debate regarding vertical or horizontal storage of beer, but our experts lean toward leaving the bottles upright.
-Steve Graham is a Fort Collins writer who enjoys the outdoors and great beer.