From New Jersey: A demanding, five-part, question comes to me from New Jersey. It is on a
topic that is often raised with me. Do beers mature with age? The questioner goes on to ask:
1. What are some benefits of cellaring beers?
MJ: It is important to stress that 99.9 per cent of beers worldwide are made to
be consumed immediately they leave the brewery. In my view, the only
(a). Cask-conditioned beers. These are filled into the cask before secondary
fermentation is complete. They contain live yeast in suspension, and some
unfermented malt sugars. In some instances, a small dosage of sugar is added
to feed the yeast. Cask-conditioned beers are usually cellared in the pub,
not the home. They clarify; gain a natural, characteristically gentle,
carbonation; and develop more complexity of flavor, over a period of days –
and occasionally weeks, so long as the cask is not broached. Once the cask
has been tapped, the beer should be consumed within hours rather than days.
(b). Bottle-conditioned beers. (The term "re-fermentation in the bottle",
used by the Belgians, is perhaps clearer). This term indicates that the beer
is unfiltered. Or only partially filtered. Or only partially centifruged.
Again, the idea is that some living yeast remains. Alternatively, the beer
may have been fully filtered or centrifuged, then given a very small dose of
fresh yeast. The original fermentation may have been arrested at a point
where there is some residual sugar left to feed this yeast. Alternatively, a
small amount of sugar or wort ("unfermented beer") may have been added for
How long will such a beer mature? No hard-and-fast rules here. Even a
light-bodied beer like a bottle-conditioned Berliner Weisse or Worthington
White Shield can develop complexity during three to six months’ cellaring in
a cool, dark, place. Bigger-bodied beers, with plenty of residual sugars and
living yeast can be matured for years. This would apply to strong brown ales
like Liefmans, the stronger Trappist products, and (if they are
bottle-conditioned) Barley Wines and Imperial Stouts.
Not all year-dated beers are intended for laying down, but a
"vintage" on the label does suggest that the beer might benefit from storage.
The date also helps you keep track of the passing years. .
(c). Some brewers feel that even filtered and/or pasteurised beers can
benefit from cellaring if they are sufficiently full in flavors, and high in
alcohol. This has been suggested in respect of John Willie Lees Harvest Ale,
from England, and Carnegie Porter, from Sweden. The argument is that the
flavors meld. Perhaps they do, over a short period, but I doubt the advantage
of keeping such a beer for much more than a year. Alcohol protects beer
against deterioration, but not completely. I have carried out comparative
tastings of several such beers, but especially Lees Harvest Ale.
2. What are the pitfalls associated with cellaring beers?
MJ: Hop character can diminish even within a few weeks. This is not always an
issue, as most beers intended for cellaring lean less toward hoppiness than
maltiness. If "re-fermentation" does not proceed properly, the beer may be
excessively malty and syrupy or soupy. Dead yeast can give "meaty" flavors.
The British sometimes describe this as being like Marmite, the Australians as
resembling Vegemite (both are products derived from brewers’ waste yeast and
used as snack foods, spread on toast). The re-fermentation in he bottle
should create carbon dioxide, which will protect the beer against oxygen.
However there will almost always eventually be some oxidation. This creates
toffeeish, Madeira-like flavors. These would be unpleasant in a dryish
bottle-condtioned beer like Duvel, but can complement the flavors in
bigger-bodied, malty, beers. This "Maderisation" can also be found in
Champagne and even whisky. If a beer is not properly sealed, it may simply
3. Have you ever stored beers? If so, were you satisfied with the results?
MJ: Travelling as much as I do, it is difficult to be methodical, but I do have a
miscellany of maturing beers in my cellar. The results have been variable.
4. Name a specific beer you have cellared, how long it aged and how the
flavor changed in time.
MJ: The examples that linger in my memory have been cellared at the brewery. An
18-year-old Thomas Hardy’s Ale was Maderised but elegant. A 21-year-old
Chimay had become substantially leaner, drier and winier, with port-like
flavors. It was astonishingly complex.
5. What advice would you have for the novice who is contemplating laying down
MJ: Never refrigerate the beer, as this will prevent the yeast from working. Keep
it somewhere dark, not too damp or musty, with a cool and reasonably
consistent temperature. If it has a real cork, lay it on its side, in a
wine-rack. When you are ready to serve it, carry it gently, so that the yeast
sediment is not shaken.
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