When it comes to beer, most of us assume that fresh is best. But as with wine, some beer benefits from ageing, given the right conditions. But you need to be careful.
Matt Houghton, founder and owner of Boatrocker Brewery in Melbourne’s Braeside, says that if you want the best from your aged beer, it’s important to understand how time affects different styles.
“If you’re expecting your beer to stay the same as it tasted on release, it’s just not going to happen,” he says. “You need to be aware of what ageing will do. With alcohol-prominent beers, such as those aged in whisky barrels or bourbon barrels, the spirits will be more prominent when they’re young. Over time they will take a back seat as it oxidises, and the beer will become more malt-forward.”
Boatrocker’s core range of hoppy and lighter styles is best drunk fresh, but the brewery also produces a number of barrel-aged beers. Its sought-after whisky-barrel-aged imperial stout, known as “Ramjet”, is an ideal candidate for ageing. The brewers also introduce different yeast and bacteria to some of their range to provide unique flavours throughout the ageing process.
One brewery growing in reputation for its spontaneously fermented beers is Two Metre Tall, in Hayes, Tasmania. The brewery simply lets wild yeast and bacteria take over, resulting in beers with a lot of sourness and acidity. Ashley Huntington, owner and brewer, says this fermentation style helps the beer evolve over time.
“We consistently make the most inconsistent beers in Australia, because over time they will move in the bottle,” says Huntington. “Our Cleansing Ale, for example, will change quite dramatically in the first 12 to 18 months.”
Last year Two Metre Tall released a seven-year-old version of its Cleansing Ale, which was aged in bottles before being decanted and re-fermented. Its name? “A Farmer’s Resilience and The Seven Year Itch”. Two Metre Tall won’t repeat the release, but Huntington says there’s nothing to stop people trying it themselves. “We aren’t going to do it every year,” he says. “You can go buy [a Cleansing Ale] and do it yourself and see if you like it.”
Both Boatrocker and Two Metre Tall won’t release certain beers until a waiting period has passed and they’re satisfied with the results. Boatrocker’s English-style barley wine, known as Banshee, was aged in ex–sherry barrels to help accentuate the character that comes with oxidation. It was then conditioned in bottles for a number of months before release. Houghton says even now, a year later, it is still tasting great and still changing.
For those wanting to try ageing beers at home, Houghton says the best conditions are somewhere dark with low humidity and a constant temperature of around 12 degrees. He prefers to age his corked beers on their side, but says there is no real consensus on whether it’s necessary.
“There’s mixed opinions on that one,” says Houghton. “I know with wine, people suggest to lie it down to stop evaporation or increased rate of oxidation. But I know, for example, with Belgian-style corks, they are much wider and fit much tighter so you can get away with upright storage and not have major issues.”
Houghton says beers with high alcohol content, such as some strong Belgian styles, will often improve over time. Both brewers agree, however, that it’s hard to know how a beer will age –the best way to find out is to simply try it for yourself. Huntington at Two Metre Tall sums it up simply: “There is no taste like time.”
This article is part of Broadsheet’s Craft Beer Quarterly, produced in partnership with James Squire.