Beer School

If you’ve acquired the sophistication to appreciate the beers we explore here, you’ve probably acquired a lot of stuff as well. Now Christmas is coming and the odds are pretty good that you’re going to get more stuff. Another popcorn popper, or perhaps an outdoor fondue kit…it’s the thought that counts, right? Too bad nobody ever stops to think about where you’re going to put all that stuff. You already park both cars in front of the garage, dammit.

Now you’re thinking, “Holy crap, I give people stuff too!”

Stop it. Yeah, that was a great deal on the vibrating seat cushion at Big Lots, but nobody wants it. Seriously, don’t buy it.

Instead, buy beer.

I’m not talking about something in a 24-pack with pictures that change colors when the beer is cold—I’m talking about something classy. And nothing is classier than a beer that can get better each Christmas.

Yes, beer can be cellared, and there are some beers that are made for it. Perhaps you’ll recall Stone’s Vertical Epic series. They started pushing out an annual release in 2002, and the idea was that you’d save them all until the final one was issued in 2012. Some of the beers didn’t hold up particularly well, but most did and the exercise was a landmark moment in the craft beer industry.Now there are a host of beers that get better with age, and not all of them are advertised as such.

That means you have to mind some rules:

1. Hops age poorly. That means pale ales and everything in the pale ale family is off-limits. Other beers use hops, and the hops will degrade but flavors will develop. Pale ales don’t have other flavors, at least not enough to handle cellaring.

2. Keep the bottles upright. Beers don’t like being on their sides, and since the head-space in a beer is usually Co2, you won’t have to worry about the cork (assuming there is one).

3. Light is the enemy. Hops might degrade over time, but light makes hops go skunky and that’s always bad. Cellars are cool and dark, and that needs to be emulated. You can use a fridge, but most beers worth aging do best in the 55-65 degree range. The 35-40 range of the average refrigerator is generally counterproductive. Remember, refrigeration was devised to preserve things, but we’re letting nature take its course. As long as you mitigate light, your beer will be fine even if it gets a bit stuffy in the guest bedroom closet.

4. Light(weight) is also the enemy. Low-ABV beers don’t fare well. If something is under 8 percent ABV, it might not age particularly well. Exceptionally high ABV beers, like the ones we can’t currently buy in Ohio, can actually bend a few of the aforementioned rules. Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, for example, gets better with age regardless of what becomes of the hops.

5. Don’t age growlers. Draft beers are oxygenated and that helps release flavor in your pint, but there’s a reason why people tell you to polish off that growler within a few days. If somebody tells otherwise because they’ve done it, tell them you can also win at Russian Roulette, but you’re still not going to play.

So what should you age? Well, the Christmas season is when you’ll find a lot of barley wines on the market and nothing ages quite so well as a big, syrupy barley wine. Most Belgian ales can handle a good bit of age, so unless you’re dealing with a crisp saison, or a light Belgian witbier, you can stash a few of these in the closet for a while. (Note: I aged a Rockmill Cask Aged Tripel for two years and the resultant elixir that flowed from that bottle was nothing short of angel tears.) The sky’s the limit. As long as you don’t try to age lighter beers, or the aforementioned hop bombs so many of us adore.

Now you’re asking, how does this help me for Christmas? Well, you can drop hints to your friends and family that you want to do this and you might get a bunch of expensive (relatively) bottles of beer you can age yourself. That’s nice. You can also buy your friends similar bottles and they’ll be thrilled. Who doesn’t love gifted booze?

But here’s a better idea—and one that we can only hope takes off. You can collect cellar-worthy beers, age them yourself, and give them to people as gifts. Maybe you’ll find beers during your travels that will hold up over time, or you’ll set aside one or two out of a six pack you found interesting. It wouldn’t be a crime if you just found a bunch of great beer on clearance that could handle a few months in the hole. It’s all good, because in a short period of time you’d have a fabulous beer cellar. You’d never have to run out and buy Christmas gifts again. Do you know how cool you’d be if you gave each of your friends a Bigfoot Barley Wine that had been cellared for three years?

You could even get all crafty and dip the bottles in wax. Martha Fricking Stewart would sign off on that one. Christmas achievement unlocked.

You’re welcome.