As beer moves away from the kegger and closer to wine country in terms of variety and quality, a growing legion of beer connoisseurs demands more complex flavours and rarer editions. In addition to the thrill of hunting down rare beers, cellaring (or aging) beer can add to the charm and mystique of a fine brew. Breaking out a 2006 Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien is a good way to give your dinner guests something special, or just savour something rare and boozy.
An aged beer isn’t just about creating a rarity, though. Cellaring certain beers for months or years can cause flavours to evolve dramatically— and while not all beers benefit from this change, some improve markedly with time.
The India Pale Ale is a famous example of a style designed to age well (to survive the long sea voyage from England to India), but most IPAs simply won’t benefit from cellaring. The charm of today’s India Pale Ale is in its hop bitterness and aroma, both of which begin to fade the minute they leave the brewery. For a proper cellar beer, there are two kinds to look for: high-alcohol and “wild” beers.
Russian Imperial Stouts, Barley Wines and other high-alcohol brews are ideal — indeed, some are brewed specifically with aging in mind. In the latter category, most beers fermented with “wild” yeasts or bacteria (think sour or funky Belgian beers like Orval and Cantillon) tend to evolve in character over time as those little bugs do their thing.
The amount of time you choose to cellar a beer can be half the fun — beers, like wine, will taste a little different every year. Your cellar should be kept between 8 and 16 degrees Celsius, and the bottles upright. Here are a few key brews to get you started.
One of the great Trappist beers, Orval is for those who prize complexity. The flavours are spice, leather and an earthiness derived from its unique strain of yeast. The perfect age for an Orval is a hot debate among beer aficionados, but we say try it at seven years.
Unibroue 17 Grand Réserve
Brewed once a year and pretty widely available, Quebec’s Unibroue has created this extra-strong dark ale with cellaring in mind. The brewery recommends cracking this year’s vintage between the years 2020 and 2023.
Samuel Adams Utopias
An American strong ale clocking in at 27 per cent ABV that could easily outlast you and your loved ones, this beer is good fresh but gets better every year it ages. A hit with beer geeks, it’s well worth the price (around $115).
Grand Cuvée Porter Baltique
Another gem from Quebec, Porter Baltique from Les Trois Mousquetaires performs very well in a cellar, with umami notes intensifying year after year. The 750 ml bottles appear seasonally across the country — just make sure you wait until winter to open one.