Tap This: Different styles of beer call for different shelving times to appreciate the full flavor
The craft beer movement has brought with it some popular phrases that mirror the locavore happening in the food world. Phrases such as “drink local” and “know your brewer” are very similar to “eat local” and “know your farmer.” While these phrases are nice, the one argument many craft beer drinkers reference is to that of freshness.
Many argue that craft beer is fresher, and therefore it is more delicious than macro beer. This certainly makes sense as fresher is generally better with other things that we consume, but does it truly matter in beer and more importantly can you taste it?
First, let’s examine the argument that fresh beer is better. This is not a simple yes or no answer as you might think it would be. Instead, the answer really depends on what style of beer is being discussed. Some styles are far superior fresh when compared to aged counterparts. However, other styles have a rich flavor profile that can only develop with age.
Styles such as IPAs, or any beer that is touted as being hop forward, should be consumed as fresh as possible. The IPA style features the wonderful hop, and while the bitterness this flower imparts in the beer is extremely impactful and at times aggressive, it is also very delicate. As a beer ages, regardless of style, the hops are the first flavor component to disappear.
The main reason hop flavor dissipates is that hops are extremely sensitive to light, and the longer the beer sits on a shelf being exposed to light of any kind, the faster the hops will deteriorate. Keep this in mind next time you visit a bottle shop and see a beer sitting on a shelf near an open window. For this reason, IPAs should be consumed fresh as the main flavor component the style offers is based upon the presence of hops.
Other styles such as imperial stouts, old ales, and barley wines reach their peak after a few years of aging. The reason is very similar to the hops dropping out of beer. As a beer ages other components will change or disappear and allow malts to shine through. A great example is a fresh barley wine versus one that has been aged five years.
A fresh barley wine, especially an American barley wine, is extremely hop forward in a way that makes the beer very unbalanced, and the high ABV also makes the beer very hot with a strong alcohol burn as it hits the back of the throat. The reason they are heavily hopped is to balance against the hefty malt backbone. One sip from a fresh bottle of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine and everything will make sense.
However, as that same barley wine is put away in a cool dark space for a few years, miraculous things occur. The hops drop out and the beer rounds itself out and develops a wonderful malty, rich profile with an easy drinking quality that you can not have imagined when drinking the same beer fresh.
These are two examples at the opposite ends of the spectrum, but what about the numerous styles in between? Beers can range from balanced easy drinking styles such as pilsners to malt forward and full beers such as scotch ales. These beers should all be taken on a case by case examination, and the true question that should be examined is, ‘What do you want from your beer?’
While many beers outside of imperialized styles will not benefit from serious aging, ones that tend to be more malt forward will not be greatly hurt by an extra month or two on your shelf. This also depends greatly on what you expect from your beer. If you do not like aggressive hops in your beer then steer clear of IPAs, obviously, and allow your beers to mature a bit.
A rough guide is the date stamp that many breweries place on their bottles and cans. IPAs should always be consumed before that date to fully enjoy the hop flavors. Other more malt forward styles should be consumed by that date if possible, but an extra month or two in the fridge won’t harm them much.
Freshness can certainly be tasted in the beer and depending on the style, should be tasted. However, aging a beer is a great way to experiment with flavors and see how a beer can develop.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.