My favorite local IPA of the summer was DC Brau’s Solar Abyss, a double IPA made with Mosaic hops. Its deliciousness was matched only by its scarcity: The beer was released in late June, every last can and keg had left the brewery by July 7, and it was drying up in local bars by month’s end. At the release party, it was astoundingly fresh, with tropical hops and pineyness filling my nose, and a sweet, juicy flavor.
Then an acquaintance announced in mid-August that he’d managed to find a case and was thinking about “cellaring” some, aging it in the belief that it would improve, like a fine wine. But I was curious: Would the beer be as zingy as I remembered, and would it get better over time? The answer from the brewery was an unequivocal no.
“Your friend needs to drink it as fresh as they can,” DC Brau brewer Jeff Hancock told me. “The hops start to lose their flavor right away. Don’t sit on it indefinitely.”
As more breweries release limited-edition beers, the question has become not only what to drink, but when. Some beer lovers save rare bottles for a special occasion; others stockpile favorites to keep enjoying once they’re no longer available. And some want to cellar a beer. The problem is, time is not always a beer’s friend, especially if that beer is hoppy.
When DC Brau customers tell Hancock about plans to age the sometimes-hard-to-find On the Wings of Armageddon Imperial IPA, “I try to dissuade them,” he says. “People don’t know that hops are the first thing to go.”
Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione says fans often tell him they’re aging My Antonia, a hoppy imperial Pilsener last made in 2013, or the sweet, fruity Chateau Jiahu. “I tell them, ‘If you’re saving it with the intention of drinking it someday, that day is today. Go home and drink it tonight: It’s not going to get any better than it is right now, and it might not even be that good.’”
Not that other beers can’t be aged effectively. “Different styles improve in a positive manner, whether that’s over six months or six years,” says Bill Sysak, craft beer ambassador for Stone Brewing in California, who has emerged as a well-regarded expert in cellaring. “Some beers, I know how they’ll do. It’s really knowing your styles and proven performers, just like wine.”
In fact, a number of beers are brewed with aging in mind. At DC Brau, that includes Exaltation, a strong dark Belgian ale released during the holidays that Hancock wanted to mellow when he formulated it. “It had a lot of herbs and ginger when fresh, and it tasted better with age,” he says.
Dogfish Head has built its reputation on strong, flavorful beer that’s primed to be drunk the day it leaves the Delaware brewery but is formidable enough — high in alcohol and “more winelike in the complexity,” says Calagione — to be aged for years. For its World Wide Stout, an imperial stout that’s up to 20 percent alcohol by volume, “it wasn’t just ‘Let’s brew the strongest beer in the world,’ but ‘Let’s brew a beer that will improve for decades,’ ” he says.
Calagione’s beer-aging epiphany came in the mid-1990s, when someone gave him two cobalt blue bottles of Samuel Adams Triple Bock. He drank one and didn’t like the “aggressive” flavors, forgot about the other one in his fridge for a year, then tried it and loved it: “It was really complex and softer.”
His favorite beers are those over 10 percent ABV, such as Dogfish’s Palo Santo Marron or 120 Minute IPA, that are aged “a few years.” And his enthusiasm for aging has caught on with fans. When Dogfish Head released the latest batch of 120 Minute, in mid-August, beer lovers lined up to pay $200 a case, with many telling Calagione they had cellaring plans. Dogfish’s Rehoboth brewpub and the three Dogfish Alehouses in the Washington area sell “reserve” bottles for those who’d like to try aging but don’t have the patience or the space to do it themselves.
At the brewery, “Sam’s Stash” — an area that’s fenced off and temperature-controlled — contains an estimated $250,000 worth of beer that’s being aged for quality-control purposes and for future dinners and tasting events. In the brewery’s early days, it couldn’t afford to do anything but sell everything it produced, but now, “every time a beer over 10 percent comes off the line,” Calagione says, “I take a pallet of bottles and kegs and put that in my stash.”
Stone’s Sysak, who has 2,600 bottles in his personal collection, shares Hancock’s reservations about cellaring IPAs and hoppy ales. But he says it can be done — just don’t expect them to taste the same. Arrogant Bastard, Stone’s aggressively hopped pale, still had nice caramel notes after a year, he says, “but the hops have dropped: That part of the beer is going to deteriorate.” On the other hand, 13-to-15-year-old versions of Stone’s Double Bastard are “drinking amazing,” Sysak says. “As they oxidize, they pick up flavors of caramel and toffee, which is good in a malty beer.”
Those transformations make cellaring fun, though the results can be divisive. Flying Dog Brewery’s Horn Dog Barley Wine Style Ale, for example, has big, sweet notes of prune, fig and dates, but after aging, it takes on sherrylike flavors. “A lot of it is personal preference,” says brewer Matt Brophy.
Even for the professionals, aging can be a crapshoot. Brophy remembers the first time he tried the Fear, Flying Dog’s imperial pumpkin ale, after it had aged for a few years, wondering, “Is the spice going to continue to dominate, or is it going to level off over time?” The beer holds up surprisingly well, he says, with complex spice.
Sysak’s favorite experiment is Thomas Hardy’s Ale, an English barley wine produced once a year. “I’ve had successful bottles that are 30 years old,” he says. “It’s like a roller-coaster ride that goes from sherry to Madeira to a port and back to a sherry.”
Not all cellaring is intentional. Brophy has a personal cellar of 80 to 100 bottles, including Belgian ales and rarities from his brewery, but he admits that “about 20 percent” probably shouldn’t be aging. “People get a special bottle, usually a large-format bottle, as a gift, or when they’re visiting a brewery, and they think, ‘I’ll save this for a special occasion,’ but then the bottles just sit there,” he says.
In that case, you might as well open it: You never know what you’ll find inside.