Beer should be drunk fresh – or should it? It’s not only whisky or wine that can be aged, but beers too. But like whisky and wine, not all beers are created equal. We’ve been guilty ourselves of aging the wrong kind of beer, and we’d hate for you to make that mistake. Beer does come with a best before date – take a look at the bottom or side of the beer you’re drinking as you read this and pay attention to it as it will come up later.
Beer is made up of four main ingredient – malt, yeast, water, and hops. Of course, there may be adjuncts added but they do not have to be added. The malt, yeast, and hops are the contributors for how long a beer can be aged for. The volatile compounds that make up beer’s flavor will change, such as the alpha and beta acids found in hops, and often deplete, over time. The proteins that give it body, from the malts. will deteriorate, and oxidation will slowly take hold. If the beer undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle, then the yeast will produce gas in the form of CO2, but will also begin to produce off-flavours when under stress from the pressure in the bottle. As the yeast dies, it may also produce off-flavours in the beer too.
So how can you decide which beers to age? Well the main factors that contribute to the possibility of aging a beer are:
- Hops – hop-forward beers, such as hazy IPAs, extra pale ales, and NE-IPA, are not suited for aging. The oils from the hops will break down and leave your beer tasting like wet cardboard, leathery, oxidised, stale, or even skunked. It’s best to drink those beers fresh when the hop flavour is at its best.
- ABV – the higher the alcohol level, the better the chance of the beer benefiting being aged. Beers from 7% and upwards tend to be best suited to aging – so think barleywines, imperial stouts, winter ales, and wheat wines. As these beers are malt-forward and less based on hops, the flavours from the malt are the main ones for consideration.
- Style – Lagers, for example, are fermented cold and already “conditioned” when you buy them. There is no need to age those so drink them cold on a hot summer’s day. Let’s be honest, noone wants to drink a 7-year old can of Asahi or Stella Artois – no matter where it was made.
- Maturation – how was the beer stored before purchase or even bottling? Barrel-aged beers, such as bourbon, whiskey, or even wine barrel aged beers, also benefit from the aging process. The peat flavours and aromas from some barrels may be too “hot” when fresh, so allowing them to mellow out over time will also help the flavours improve and become smoother.
With that in mind, these beers are the ones we recommend for aging:
- Imperial Stouts – high malty backbone, with flavours that get smoother over time with age.
- Barleywines – like imperial stouts, primarily malt base, so the sugars will become softer as time passes.
- Belgian quads or tripels – not the easiest style in Japan to find, but their high ABV and unique usage of candied sugars are perfectly suited to aging.
- Old ales – a wide encompassing style of beer that is brewed across Europe, UK, and USA, with some examples in Japan. Make sure you get something above 7%.
- Winter ales – often brewed with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or vanilla, these beers are high in abv but often taste better after aging as the adjuncts become more palatable.
- Sour beers – a strange inclusion with the above being ABV based, but the flavour from a sour beer will change – maybe for better or for worse – due to the brettanomyces yeast, which will produce more funky flavors over time.
So now you’ve chosen your beers, how do you actually age them? Well if you read our previous soapbox on shops then the following two points will be familiar to you.
The first thing you need is somewhere cool and dry. Of course, in Japan, the coolest place in winter may be the hottest place in summer so you need to find somewhere that has consistency throughout the year. You may be tempted to place the beer in the hottest part, in the hopes of speeding up the process of aging, but that is not a good thing. The flavours may take on too much heat and oxidise too quickly, producing more off flavours. Low and slow is the order of the day. If you haven’t got a beer cellar, then either a beer fridge will help you out, or even the regular household fridge, but make sure the beer is kept away from strong smelling foods, such as natto or cheese that may permeate through. But don’t be tempted to store the beer as close to ice cold, instead, you’re looking for conditions that are between 7c to 13c.
The second factor is light – especially UV light. We talked about this in our previous soapbox but UV light is one of the biggest factors in changing that delicious beer into a cardboard mess. So make sure the place you store your beer is dark as possible – that fridge light won’t do anything to the beer but don’t place the beers out in the open.
One other factor to look at is how the beer is stored in terms of position. While the majority of bottled beers are stored with caps, they are prone to developing leaks and some may also not have oxygen scavenging caps on top of them. Moreover, some beers come with corks instead of the caps so they require a different method of storage. With metal capped bottles, store them vertically, with no liquid touching the cap to ensure that there is no pressure against the cap, which may cause gas to leak. As with wine, corked bottles should be stored horizontally to avoid drying out.
A final point is diversifying your aging. This is the expensive part – besides renting out a temperature controlled environment for your forthcoming huge collection. When you buying some beers, buy in bulk. Go buy that 12-pack of imperial stouts – sure it will cost 8000yen, but then you can age and try throughout time. Have a couple of beers “fresh”, then try them periodically over time, say every 6 months. Then buy the next release and compare flavours with a batch bought one year on. Age another for a year and try it against a fresh one and see how they stand up to each other. Sometimes the aged beer is less intense, with more complex flavours. This doesn’t always work though but it’s up to you.
Here’s a list of Japanese beers we recommend for aging. Most of these are seasonal specials in winter so buy them in bulk if you can to see how the flavours change over time.
- Baird Dark Sky Imperial Stout / Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine
- Sankt Gallen El Diablo / El Angel
- Shiga Kogen Far Yeast Barrel Aged Imperial IPA
- Songbird Imperial Stout
- Locobeer General Winter
- Nasu Kogen Nine-tailed Fox
- Swan Lake Imperial Stout
- Ise Kadoya Sinto Old Ale
- Minoh Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
- Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale
- Hideji Kuro Kuri Chestnut Ale