Chad’s the wine guy here so he can tell you about what aging does for wines (I can’t. I don’t know wine from fermented grape juice.) But I do know beer. And I’ve got a cellarfull.
I assume (possibly incorrectly) that most wines improve with age. Not so with beer. Most beers do not improve with age. They go stale, turn sour, turn cloudy, etc. But some beers are absolute treasures when aged.
What to Age
What makes a beer a good candidate for aging? That’s a good question. Only brewers really know how their beer is going to do when aged for varying lengths: they sample at regular intervals until they deem it to be “ripe.” With home cellar aging, we don’t have that luxury. We take educated guesses.
To be clear: That case of Bud Light isn’t going to taste any better after 6 months. In fact, it’s going to taste horrible. That corked cobalt of Chimay Tripel, on the other hand, would taste incredible after a quarter-century in a cellar. What’s the difference?
The big factor in the amount of time that a beer can age before it starts to deteriorate is alcohol content. Stronger beers can age longer. Around 8%ABV is the break-even point. Under 8% and a beer is likely to get worse with age. Over 8% and it’s likely to improve with age. Note how I said likely. Aging is never a sure thing.
But just because a beer can age without deteriorating, doesn’t mean it will actually improve. In other words, alcohol content only determines how long a beer stays fresh. Not how *well* it will age. That comes from three things: sugar, malt varieties, and density. Beers that start out sweet will not show as much improvement as beers that start out bitter (malt bitterness, not hop bitterness). Beers that have weak malts (2 row pale, crystal, northern brewer, etc.) will not improve as much as beers that have strong malts (caramel, carapils, patent, etc.). Thicker beers age better than thinner beers.
So if most beers only get worse with age, then why age beer at all? Because some beers get better with age. And some people (like me) consider the additional time investment well worth it when we taste the end result.
Sugars will stay sugary but lose the saccharine sharpness that is associated with overly sweet beer.
Malts will become maltier. Black Patent malts are especially good at this – they go from hardcore coffee flavor to pleasant dark chocolate.
Grain flavor will diminish to be replaced with additional sweetness (which is why sweet beers don’t age as well as bitter).
Hops will become less bitter. Aromatic hops (Noble hops in particular) will keep their unique flavors and aromas but loose some of their harshness. Bittering hops will be toned out almost entirely.
Fruity flavors will lose their tartness. Granny Smith Apple or sour cherry will become Golden Delicious or cherry cobbler.
Overall, the beer will seem more rounded. The characteristic flavors of the beer will not have changed. To the contrary, they will seem to fit together more. The beer will seem more complete and well-integrated after aging. The rough edges will have smoothed out and the complex flavors that had been hidden underneath will start to show.
How To Age
Find a cellar. Should be underground if possible. Make sure the cellar is a constant temperature year round (more or less). In this case “dampness” isn’t necessarily bad – beer ages best in slightly moist conditions. Standing water or condensation is bad, however, because that could encourage mold growth which makes for quickly ruined beer. The temperature should be between 40 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Lagers age best between 42 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Fruity or tart ales (especially lambics) age best between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Strong, dark ales and barley wines age best between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The area should be out of direct sunlight and be relatively undisturbed for long periods of time (agitation can delay aging, and in some cases cause sour flavors to develop in otherwise good beer).
Darker beers age faster than lighter beers. They tend to reach peak tastiness quickly but maintain their flavors for a very long time. Lighter beers take much longer to mature. Beers that are bottled with some amount of sediment may become stronger with age. Very sour beers can turn sweet given enough time.
Don’t Give Up Hope
The best way to experience aging beer is to buy several bottles of the same type of beer, one that you like and that you think will age well. Keep one and cellar the rest. Drink the one that you kept, noting its aromas and flavors. After varying intervals (six months, one year, two years, five years, ten years, 20 years, and 25 years) take out a bottle from the cellar and try it, again noting the aromas and flavors and comparing it to what you originally wrote for the younger versions of the beer.
You won’t always be happy with what happened to your beer! Aging is an experiment. Nothing is guaranteed. Sometimes you’re very surprised that a weak, light-colored lager stored at warm temperatures turns out lovely after six months. Sometimes, the ideal candidate, a barley wine, turns putrid after only four months. Shit happens. Unlike a wine cellar, a beer cellar is recreation, not an investment. Don’t cellar any beer you deem to valuable to gamble with. That being said, sometimes expensive bottles make the best long-term aging candidates. Chimay (a Belgian monastic brewery) is known for producing beers that, while pricey, age to perfection and have almost unlimited cellar life.
You drink beer because you enjoy it. There’s no other reason. If it’s not fun, then don’t do it. Do what makes you happy – it’s your beer!