By David Alan
Photography by Whitney Arostegui
In a time of “born-on” and “drink-by” dates, it may come as a surprise to even the most enthusiastic beer drinker that, while most beer is meant to be consumed fresh, there are some beers that not only withstand the test of time, but actually improve with age. Though beer collecting and aging is far from a mainstream hobby, Central Texas has legions of collectors, many of whom are eager to discuss their tipsy pastime.
WHAT TO AGE
First, it is important to identify what beers are capable of taking on age. Most beer is intended to be served fresh, and, as with food, this is a good thing—it keeps us thinking and drinking seasonally. Beers that are capable of improving with age are often characterized as being bigger, bolder and beastlier than those lighter, refreshing beers.
Some beers have the vintage stamped on the label or bottle, which often indicates that a beer will age well. Sisyphus Barleywine from local brewery Real Ale Brewing Company is one—it’s released once a year and vintage dated. (Vintage dating also helps a collector keep track of the beer in the cellar. For cellar beers with no vintage date, write the year on the bottle, cap or neck tag to easily identify it down the road.)
In addition to barley wines, other beers that tend to age well include barrel-aged beers, imperial stouts or other “imperial varieties,” beers over 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and bottle-conditioned beers. Malty beers tend to age better than hoppy beers. Of course, these rules are open to interpretation.
Dipak Topiwala of South Austin’s Whip In is in the unique position of curating a beer cellar not just for his own personal enjoyment, but also for public consumption. He presides over beer operations at the family store—a beer drinker’s paradise. Whereas many collectors will cellar one or two bottles or six-packs, Topiwala lays down entire cases and even kegs of beer. Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you may have the opportunity to taste a vintage treasure from his cellar. I recently got to taste Sisyphus on tap—not only from the current year, but also a vintage version from 2006. “A good beer, when it’s fresh, may be delicious,” he explains, “but that same beer after years of aging can taste like drinking clouds—an indescribable experience.”
After tasting the Sisyphus, Topiwala went on to share some of his guidelines for cellaring beer. “A good rule of thumb is Belgian beers and beers over 8 percent ABV tend to age really well. Most folks don’t like IPAs to age because they want the hops to be fresh, but I tend to think that hops can integrate as they age. They don’t stand out as much individually, but the sum of the parts is great. Things that are already barrel aged or sour beers also age well. Some things age better in refrigeration than at cellar temperature. The biggest decider for us, though, is what we like.”
Though some newer beer outfits are in the process of aging beers for future consumption, Whip In is one of the only places in Austin where you can taste beer that’s been aged for public enjoyment. “I’m really looking forward to trying some Avery [Brewing Company] Maharaja that we’re storing,” he offers as a teaser. “Nuanced, full, rich, hoppy…everything I love about anIPA, and it can definitely age.”
HOW TO STORE
Intuition may suggest that cellared beer should be stored on its side like wine. Evidence, however, supports storing beer upright. This is done for a number of reasons:
Cork flavor—If beer spends too much time in contact with the cork, it can take on the flavor of the cork, which is not considered desirable.
Dry cork—If there’s concern that the cork will dry out if not in contact with the liquid, remember that the inside of a beer bottle has its own humidity level that serves to keep the cork moist. The outside portion of the cork is more at risk for drying out. Storing cork-topped beers in a humid environment is one way to prevent this. These beers may also be dipped in wax or capped with a bottle cap to provide additional insurance against dry-out.
Oxidation—Oxygen in the bottle will slowly affect the flavor of the beer. If beer is stored vertically, the surface area exposed to oxygen is at a minimum.
Sediment—Many of the bigger beers that are candidates for cellaring are also likely to have sediment in the bottle. Stored upright, this sediment will gather compactly at the bottom of the bottle, making it easier to hold back when pouring. Stored horizontally, this sediment will spread out along the entire length of the bottle and kick up when the beer is poured.
WHERE TO STORE
Terms like “room temperature” and “cellar temperature” don’t have much bearing in Central Texas, where room temperature is usually too warm and cool basements are rare. It’s most important to remember that beer doesn’t like excessive heat or cold, and it definitely doesn’t like light. Ideal cellar temperature for most beers is in the 50 to 55 degree range, which can be accomplished by storing beer in a designated refrigerator that’s not meant to store food. In a pinch, a cool, dark closet is an alternative.
There is one less technical aspect to the storage dilemma, as well, according to more than one collector I spoke with. “John told me: no more beer,” says Austin collector Jennie Chen, referring to her partner and fellow collector. And Dusty Yarbrough of (512) Brewing Company says, “there are like five cases of beer in our bedroom right now. My wife is not super excited about it, but she never complains when I open one of those special bottles.”
HOW LONG TO STORE
In order to detect any measurable difference in an aged beer, it needs to cellar for at least a year. But some beers can easily age eight to ten years—some for much longer. Take notes and compare the taste of aged beers of a certain type. At some point, the aging results will diminish, and it’s important to be cautious about over-aging. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
AGING, TASTING AND TRADING
One of the pleasures of aging beer is being able to assemble “vertical” tastings—consecutive vintages of the same beer that can be tasted side by side for comparison.
But not all beer collecting and tasting is about aged beer. It’s also about getting your hands on beers that are limited releases, seasonal offerings, home brews or beers from far-flung breweries that don’t have distribution in your area. According to Frank Krockenberger of Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company, trading is the only way to get certain beers. “There are some beers that money can’t really buy, because these [collectors] don’t collect beer for the money; they collect it to drink and share with friends.” And lastly, don’t be afraid to experiment. This is a relatively new tradition, and there’s still much to learn. Unlike a wine tasting, a beer tasting is a much cheaper experiment if something goes wrong.
Whether in an informal meet-up or a more organized affair, most of the collectors I met agree that aged and curated beer is best shared with friends and fellow collectors. Chen offers some tips on how to best host a beer tasting or swap:
• Make sure most of the guests have a similar level of beer appreciation.
• Circulate a list ahead of time so that people know what’s going to be poured. Start with what the host is offering and continue circulating as people add their beers to the list.
• Snacks are a must. Whether it’s fine charcuterie or pizza delivery, make sure people have something to eat.
• Make sure that traded beers are of equal interest and value.
• Consider obtaining beers from different parts of the country to trade with people. (“I’m not above placing orders with people who are coming into town, if I know they’re from some place with a great brewery,” says Chen.)
• Offer proper glasses. (“You don’t want to age beer for years and serve it in Solo cups,” Chen says.)
For decades, the giants of the beer industry have been pursuing a race to the bottom of the can. Gimmicky one-upmanship has reached a fever pitch with the new “coldness indicator” on a bottle and the “vented” can tops to accelerate delivery to the gullet. It’s refreshing that a subset of beer drinkers has taken the opposite approach and discovered that sometimes older is better than colder, and that good things come to those who wait.