This weekend my wife’s patient with me ended. I had been keeping a large bottle of Fantome from Brasserie de Fantome in the pantry for a while and it had been taking up space. I decided to open the bottle and sip the beer that afternoon. I’m not sure when I bought it but I think if was early 2008 so it was about 3 ½ years ago. Many might think that the beer was not drinkable. On the contrary, it was really good so the question is can you and should you age beer?
Lets start with if it is possible to age beer? The answer to that is simple, yes. Aging beer is no problem at all but all beers and beer styles are not suitable for aging. I started aging beer a long time ago. In the beginning I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing so I aged anything. I also had some less enjoyable experiences. The beers I’ve had best luck with are higher in alcohol, 6% and up, rich in flavors like stouts, porters, strong ale and barley wine. Belgian abbey ales, Trapist, most Winter Warmer and Christmas beers, Flamish Red Ales and high alcohol blond ales are usually also good aging beers and of course Lambics. If the beer is not pasteurized it develops more but some pasteurized beers will work too. I haven’t tried aging Imperial IPAs but the very hoppy beers I have experimented with didn’t improve. Keeping the beer stored is like aging wine, cold, dark and dry. The cooler the beer is stored the slower it develops. It shouldn’t go below 5 C/41F. The yeast stops doing it’s magic below that temperature. 12C/55F is an optimal temperature and above 15C/59F it matures to fast. I had a Liefmans Goudenband that for a few weeks was kept to warm due to a malfunction in the cooler. The beer was undrinkable when I tried it. Bottles with a cork should lie down so that the beer is in contact with the cork. If the cork is not kept moist it will dry and air will come in to the bottle on spoil the beer. Beers with a cap should stand up.
Why keep a perfectly good beer in the basement for years when you can drink it right a way? Flavor of course. I’m always on the quest for better beer and one way is to age beer. There are many different ways a beer changes when you age it. In general my experience is that it becomes more complex. The flavors blend and it’s hard to dissect and isolate the flavor components. The carbonation weakens or disappears and if there is still yeast in the beer the alcohol level will increase. To me a good aged beer is a WOW! beer without being able to specify what the wow is. The other day I had two collaboration beers, the Jason Fields & Kevin Sheppard/Stone/Tröegs Cherry Chocolate Stout and the Green Flash/Pizza Port Carlsbad/Stone Highway Scotch Ale. The Chocolate Stout is a beer that I think you need to age to get the best out of it. Right now it’s very young and edgy and lack balance. There are plenty of interesting flavors with the sweetness from the cherries, the chocolate and the slight burned malt flavors. But they are not in harmony. By keeping this beer in the basement a few years the flavors will blend and harmonize with each other and the beer will for sure be a great beer. The Green Flash/Pizza Port Carlsbad/Stone Highway Scotch Ale on the other hand is a great beer with its depth, sweet body and burnt caramel. This beer doesn’t have to be aged but I think the beer would be even better in a few years. When aging Lambics and Gueuzes the often very sour flavors get mellower and almost start tasting like Champagne. My experience with kriek (cherry Lambic) is that the cherry flavors get weaker the longer it’s aged. Porters and stouts loose carbonation and the body get bigger and deeper. I once had a pasteurized Carnegie Porter from Sweden. I didn’t think that it would change much but after 5 years the carbonation was almost gone and it almost tasted like a port wine.
The hard thing with aging beer is to know when it peaks. The best way is to put 5 or 10 of the beers in the cellar and open the first one after two or three years and after that one every year. Sampling two or three aged beer of the same kind at the same time gives the best experience. Having a new and fresh beer, a beer aged for two years and one for five years is a great way to experience the development of the aging and how the beer have matured. I few years ago I was at Kulminator in Antwerp, Belgium. This is a great beer bar that specializes in aged beer. I had a new and fresh Stille Nascht by De Dulle Brewers, a 6 year old and a 15 year old. The 15 year old was by fare the best and it’s also the best aged beer I ever had. This spring I had a 9-year-old Stille Nacht that I had aged my self and this was just a WOW!!!!!! beer. All domestic and most imported beers have expiration dates. Belgian abbey beers and other high alcohol beers have a 5-10 year expiration date. For many of these beers that date can be seen as the time the beer should be aged.
I have only been at two bars that are serious about aging beer. Kulminator in Antwerp is probably the oldest and most respected and Akkurat in Stockholm, Sweden has a outstanding menu of aged beer.
So what about the Fantome I had this weekend? It’s a while ago since I had this beer. I had the opportunity to visit the brewery many years ago in Soy, Belgium, close the Luxembourg boarder. I remember the beer as a little edgy with an irritating bitterness in the finish. The 3 1/2 year old beer I had this weekend had nothing of that. I was deep, complex full-bodied beer in harmony, a WOW! beer.