Brewing Beers to Age: Tips from Pros

As wine connoisseurs have known for ages, sometimes your favorite drink is better when aged. Not all beers are ideal for cellaring. It takes the right style, ingredients, and techniques to brew a beer that is good fresh but develops greater complexity over the years.

Brewer: Mike Smith, Eel River Brewing Company in St. Scotia, CA

A beer needs to have certain qualities to be ideal for aging: High alcohol content (8% minimum), high finishing gravity (above 1.024 achieved through a mash temperature of 154+ °F/68+ °C or dextrin malt), high melanoidin content, high IBUs, a low oxygen level at bottling, and yeast presence in the bottle.

The high starting gravity (1.085 or higher) requires extra grain. Unless your mash system is oversized, you’ll need to decide whether to do a half-size batch or do two mashes into one kettle. I recommend the later, which allows for an extra hour or more of boil time on the first wort during the second mash rest. Prolonged boils tend to concentrate and darken the sugar, which is ideal for aging. You want to get all your sugar from grain: If you chose to use dextrose or table sugar as the source for your high starting gravity you’re going to have wort that is too fermentable and therefore will finish too dry.

A high hop bitterness is necessary to balance the sweetness of the high unfermentable sugar content. It’s important to try to stick to a hop that is somewhat balanced in its alpha-to-beta acid ratio as the aging process degrades the bitterness from alpha acids but can compensate by bringing out the bitterness from beta acids. Noble varieties such as Saaz and Hallertau are good examples.

A double size pitch of healthy brewer’s yeast is needed to assure a complete fermentation of high gravity wort. Enzymes can take the ferment too far and leave you without the sweetness needed to age well. A side note I should mention is the healthier the yeast the less prone it will be to off-flavor generation, which can linger in the bottle forever. If the yeast is contaminated in any way the bacteria will have plenty of time to show its bad side in your cellar.

During fermentation, high gravity beers need more time to finish. They also need more time for all of the yeast to drop out of suspension. The high sugar and subsequent alcohol content is a stressful environment for yeast and it tends to cause it to flocculate much more slowly. I recommend prolonged conditioning at cellar temperatures for an extra week or two before transferring to bottles. For homebrewers, bottle conditioning is the best way to go.

Typically, beers designed for aging can seem overly sweet when fresh due to the use of heavy caramel malt or prolonged kettle boiling. Over time, oxidized melanoidins develop toffee and Sherry notes, bringing things into a more balanced state, and fruity yeast esters combine with other oxidized compounds to create the perception of dried fruit. Aromatic hop presence will oxidize and dissipate but with the right hops the bitter perception will be replaced from the beta acids’ reaction with oxygen.

The trick to brewing a beer intended for aging that is also very drinkable when fresh is to use the right hops, and lots of them. When you boil a caramel malt-filled wort for a long time you’re asking for the beer to be a sugar bomb. If you keep the hops subdued you have no balance when fresh and the beer can come across tasting like burnt sugar with a boozy nose. You need to find out how far you can push hops, malt, and alcohol without taking one over the edge.

Brewer: Ashton Lewis, Springfield Brewing Company in Springfield, MO

Beers that age well do more than simply sit in a bottle and remain constant. Higher alcohol beers and those with microbes intended to change the beer over time are the types that I believe are ideal for aging. Malty barleywines take on some interesting notes with time and beers with Brettanomyces, especially those with some residual dextrins, also continue to morph during long-term storage. Don’t expect top notes associated with hops, fruit or subtle spice additions to hang around during prolonged storage.

When brewing bigger beers I accept higher extract losses and often times boil for extended durations to push the original gravity up. I also like extended mash rests at lower temperatures to help increase wort fermentability, which helps avoid lots of residual carbohydrate. If you are interested in aging these beers with Brett, this method can help limit the available food supply, so to speak.

The basic requirement for beer intended to lie down for this duration is some viable yeast in the bottle at the onset. This will help set the stage for success with respect to oxidative stability. I do assume that beer is going to oxidize over time, especially when thinking 5+ years, so choose ingredients that lend positive attributes when changed by oxidation and time.

I would recommend using a champagne bottle due to the higher pressures and then forgetting about them for 6 months. At this point it is time to taste; if the beer tastes good but shows signs of fading it may be time to conclude the aging experiment. If the beer is holding up well, wait another 6 months and pull out another bottle for tasting. After a year you will know if the beer has what it takes to stand the test of time. But treat your stash as a treasure that may be wonderful tomorrow and awful soon after because predicting the demise of beer in a cellar is not a science.

Issue: October 2014