The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.
This time of year the 95-degree heat and sweltering humidity make us all reach for glasses of refreshing summer seasonals or that jug of ice-cold sangria.
So what do you do with bombers of heavier beer that you purchased back in January? And how do you know the perfect time to drink something you’ve had sitting around for a while?
While most beer certainly has a shorter shelf life than wine, some can be treated like fine wine: cellared and saved for special occasions (if you’re like my husband and me, a “special occasion” is any night you’re hanging out with good friends who appreciate good beer). I realize cellaring beer or wine can be a challenge of wills because you want to drink something right away, but aging has its perks. When properly aged, the flavors in a beer or wine become silkier, richer and more complex.
There are a few basic things to know when cellaring beer or wine. The first is knowing what to cellar.
Wines are relatively straight-forward: reds age better than whites (although some Rieslings and oaked Chardonnays can be aged), and wine with strong tannic structure, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, tend to age well. Some bottles of wine can be cellared for 10 or 20 years, but inexpensive bottles of wine should not be aged: they are meant to be consumed when young.
Most beers also are made to be consumed within several months of bottling or canning, but higher ABV beers (barleywines and imperials) and beers that have already been aged to some degree (Flemish reds, barrel-aged beers and lambics) can be “laid down” for several years. Most beer experts say that beers can be cellared for up to two years, unless the brewer suggests otherwise, but some people are now aging beers for decades.
There’s a reason they call it cellaring.
Like wine, beer should be stored in a space that has a consistent temperature and does not expose the beer to light. Unlike wine, which should be laid on its side to keep the cork wet, beer should be stored upright. Having a cork dry out is not as much of a problem with beer as it is with wine, and storing beer upright will keep any sediment in the bottom of the bottle.
Like a fine red wine, when a beer is cellared, the flavors meld together and it becomes more complex. Proper aging tends to smooth out a beer and enhances its richness.
One of the great things about aging beer is that you can do vertical tastings, where you taste the same beer from different vintages. If you’ve never done a vertical tasting, head over to Al’s of Hampden, where they currently have Troeg’s Flying Mouflan from 2012 and 2013 on tap. By having the two side-by-side you taste how the barleywine’s flavors change with aging. Stone’s Vertical Epic Series (if you can get your hands on any of it) is another wonderful way to experience aged beer.
So how do you know when to drink it?
Unfortunately, knowing when to open a bottle is not an exact science, and once a beer or wine is past its prime, it goes downhill quickly. Oxidation will cause a beer or wine to taste musty and sherry-like, but not in a good way. Some people who are serious about opening bottles at their peak will take notes or consult with experts about the best time to pop the cork. I confess to having more of a Russian-roulette approach: when it looks good and drinkable, I open it.