The Hops: A handy guide to aged beer

Worth the wait Bottles age in a darkened corner of the beer cellar at John's Grocery
Worth the wait
Bottles age in a darkened corner of the beer cellar at John’s Grocery

In December, I drank my last bottle of 2009 Anchor Christmas Ale.

That’s right: I drank a three-year-old beer—ceremoniously, too. I poured the ruby-brown brew into a gold-rimmed Christmas Ale pint glass that I reserve for drinking Anchor’s iconic holiday seasonal. I took notes and compared them to what I had written the first time I tried the beer years before. Why all the fuss? Because I am nerdy like that. And because my bottle of 2009 was the first beer that I ever aged.

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Contrary to what many believe, beer can be aged much like wine. When aged properly, a beer’s aroma and flavor profile will evolve as characteristics fade, emerge or change. Aging is far from an exact science, though, and good intentions can inadvertently transform a beer into something undrinkable. Despite that risk, beer enthusiasts everywhere are storing bottles in basements, cellars and crawl spaces for special occasions or sheer experimentation.

“Everyone’s heard of a wine cellar. Not everyone’s heard of a beer cellar,” said Joe Hotek, the beer manager at John’s Grocery, who himself has a cache of aging beers. “It’s fun to see what the beer does when left to do its own thing.”
Though even beer aging veterans can turn prized vintages into flat, cardboard-flavored sludge, there are a number of good guidelines that everyone attempting to age beer should follow.

What To Age

Because not all beers can be aged, Hotek said it is vital to know which are worthy of cellaring.

Far from ideal are lagers, which taste best before they even leave the brewery and have a six-month shelf life at most. IPAs, Double IPAs and any kind of hop-driven ales are best consumed fresh because the “hop-bombast” will vanish quickly and the beer will eventually become a “big sweet mess,” said Hotek.

Beers perfect for aging have a higher alcohol content (7 percent ABV and above) and are malt-driven. Bottle-conditioned beers, which contain live-cultured yeast, are best, but beers without active yeast that have an ABV of 8 percent or higher can also be aged. Personally, Hotek said he only ages barley wine, imperial stout and Belgian sour. Most Belgian styles (including dubbel, tripel, quadrubel and lambic) can also be aged, he said.

There are a couple of outliers, too. According to Joshua M. Bernstein’s book, Brewed Awakening, beers brewed with wild yeast, such as saison, can be aged but are often unsuitable. There are also one-time, seasonal releases—some of which, including my Anchor Christmas Ale, defy the high-ABV guideline. Amazingly, a few lucky souls out there are opening Christmas Ale vintages from the mid-‘80s that are incredibly tasty and complex.

Cellar-worthy beers available locally include: Bell’s Expedition Stout, Bell’s Third Coast Old Ale, the varieties of Chimay, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, Peace Tree Imperial Stout, Millstream’s Weizenbock and Old Smokehouse Barley Wine, most of the lower-ABV Unibroue products, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine, Orval and Goose Island Matilda.

Where and How to Age

LET ’em Chill
The refrigerator can be an
ideal place for aging beer.

Heat and light are beer’s mortal enemies, so beer should be aged in a dedicated spot that is both cool and dark. A cellar or basement storage area will work well. Hotek said he uses a converted root cellar, which he cleaned and insulated. In apartments, the floor of a centrally located closet will suffice, though Hotek said the bottles should be wrapped in paper bags.

Ideally, the temperature needs to remain relatively cool. At colder temperatures, beer will change and develop much more slowly. Hotek recommended 40-50ºF, and Randy Mosher recommends 55-65ºF in his book, Tasting Beer. The warmer the temperature, the faster the beer will develop, especially varieties with live-cultured yeast. Warmer temperatures also hasten spoilage, though, so do not keep beer too warm.

Humidity should also be considered. A storage area should not be too damp because mold can enter a bottle through a cork or loose cap and ruin the heavenly nectar inside. A spring-and-autumn-like humidity range of 50-70 percent is recommended in Brewed Awakening.

When in doubt, use a fridge. Bottles can be placed in the back of a fridge for short-term aging, Hotek said. I kept my bottle of Christmas Ale 2009 in the fridge for three years and it aged very well. Beer kept in a fridge, though, will not develop or change as much because of the colder temperatures. Avoid transferring beer from a fridge to a warmer storage area. Once a beer is cold, it should stay cold.

Beer bottles can either be stored upright or on their sides. Bernstein’s sources, though, recommend storing them upright so any sedimentation will settle to the bottom. If stored sideways, sedimentation will settle along the side and easily kick up during a pour.

How Long to Age

It varies depending on the style and storing conditions, and any aging already done by the brewery should be factored into one’s own aging. Based on his experience, Hotek said the “sweet spot” for barley wine and

imperial stout is one to two years. Quads, he said, are about the same, though he thinks most Belgians can be aged anywhere from three to five years. Some lambics have a 20-year shelf life, but Hotek does not recommend aging any beer longer than five years. Personally, he does not age most American craft beer longer than two years because the beers may oxidize if not capped properly.

Hotek recommends buying multiple bottles or a six-pack when aging. One bottle can be consumed fresh to provide a benchmark and the others can be opened at regular intervals (every six months or so). Beers that age well, Hotek said, will taste like they are supposed to. Those that have passed their prime will be stale and taste like cardboard.

For the most part, aging is a lot about experimentation and personal experience.

“Be patient, but not too patient,” said Hotek, who admitted to aging beers too long and dumping them down the drain. “It really is a guessing game.”

It is a fun game, though, with potentially tasty results.

Casey Wagner lives in Iowa City.

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