A lot of beers are meant to be drunk fresh and will expire over the course of a few months, but some can actually improve over time, kind of like good wine.
One of the beers that I’ve personally experienced this with is Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde, a Belgian-style pale ale brewed in Quebec that I often found a little too yeasty for my liking, particularly in the early days of my experimenting with different beers. A friend and I discovered, though, on Unibroue’s website, that their beers are suitable to aging and can continue to mature in the bottle, for up to five years in some cases. Not long after this enlightenment (sometime in 2009), we purchased a dozen large bottles, put them in a wine box, and tucked them into storage under my friend’s stairs to be intentionally forgotten about.
Over time, I’m absolutely certain that the beer slowly improved. Every six months or so, we’d pop the cork on a bottle; by 2015, when we drank the last bottle, it seemed to me that the Belgian yeasty taste of the beer had completely subsided, replaced by fruity esters that I found comparable to the taste of apricot and incredibly enjoyable.
The key to cellaring beer is finding one that hasn’t been filtered, i.e. don’t tuck away a case of Corona Extra under your stairs for five years and then call your chums over for a tasting session.
It’s not always easy to know for sure if a beer has been filtered, but often your bigger bottles with a higher ABV will be unfiltered. The cloudy sediment often found lingering on the bottom of these bottles is essentially yeast biomass; as well, these beers often have a higher gravity, inferring the beer was brewed with a higher malt to water ratio, inferring more sugar for yeast to sustain themselves on, upwards to a decade as I’ve seen advertised on bottles of Liefman’s Goudenband (a 10/10 Flemish brown ale that occasionally hits LCBO shelves).
Many cellarable beers are Belgian-style – look for dubbels, tripels, and even quads (indicators of strength), as well as Trappist ales. Some beers of British origin are also good to tuck away, like imperial stouts and strong IPAs.
Truthfully, I’m only aware of a few hard and fast rules for cellaring beer:
1) Find an unfiltered beer with yeast still in the bottle;
2) Don’t lie bottles down on their sides, as you want yeast cells to settle on the bottom of the bottle; and
3) Keep at room temperature, as you need the yeast to stay active. As for how beers turn out after being cellared, it’s often anybody’s guess, but I’ve only ever had positive experiences.
To enjoy cellared beer, the true aficionado will conduct ‘ladder tastings’, meaning ideally you would buy the same beer every year over the course of, say, five years, and on that fifth year you would have five different vintages to compare.
If a good ol’ fashioned ladder tasting sounds like what’s been missing in your life, every year Unibroue also releases their Grande Réserve 17, even putting the vintage year on the label to help you keep things sorted. A friend and I just drank the 2011 vintage the other night. The head of the beer was so fine, it reminded me of the nitrogen-infused head of a Guinness stout; it tasted like dark, ripe fruit, almost like cola, and I was able to subtly discern the dry taste of the French oak that the beer was aged in before being bottled.
Fuller’s, of England, has been brewing a Limited Edition Vintage Ale since 1997, released every year around Christmas; I usually get one as a gift but have never had the discipline of stockpiling them over the years to do a proper comparison; I made a commitment to start with the 2016 vintage. I also noticed this year that Fuller’s released a Limited Edition Imperial Stout that would surely be appropriate for cellaring.
Cellaring beer seems ridiculous to some people; after all, why not just drink it fresh, the way the brewer intended? For many beers, you should do just that; but, if you get excited thinking about an 18-year-old single-malt Scotch, or dusting off a vintage bottle of French wine, then you might find a new way of appreciating some beers through cellaring and vintage comparisons.
Thanks for tuning in once again!
Jason McLellan is a self-professed beer geek. He wants the world to know he's damn proud of his Northern Ontario roots, even though he couldn't catch a fish if one jumped in the boat. His columns run Wednesdays at 12:00 p.m. Find him on Facebook: Jason McLellan with the Beer Up North banner.