There’s a simple rule for most modern bottled beers when it comes to ageing: don’t. It’s not worth it. Probably the vast majority of beers are designed to be drunk fresh, and all they will do if you keep them is deteriorate. However, a few beers actually need ageing before they’re in perfect condition, even if only for a couple of weeks to a month (in the case of lower-gravity bottle-conditioned ales) and some need even longer than that: nine months to two years before they’re drinkable.
For example, when bottled Guinness Extra Stout (at 4.2 per cent abv) was a “live” naturally conditioned beer (until 1994 in the UK and 2000 in Ireland) the expected number of days after bottling before the beer came into condition was seven to 14, with an average of 10 days. (This depended on the ambient temperature that the beer was stored at, of course, and it was the fact that, thanks to the arrival of central heating, pubs were much warmer inside by the 1980s that Guinness decided it needed to stop letting its stout mature naturally in the bottle: hotter pubs meant faster maturation meant the beer in the bottle was not in the condition Guinness wanted when it reached the customer’s glass.)
The stronger Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (7.5 per cent or so abv), when that was a naturally conditioned bottled beer, before 1948, required six weeks of conditioning after bottling but was then expected to remain in a perfectly drinkable state for at least a year. Lactic acid content increased as the beer aged in the bottle, but was balanced by the production of esters and other volatile components in the maturing beer, and the lactic acid was believed to add to the “fullness” of the flavour. Brewing chemists at Guinness found that yeast could survive in bottled FES for up to 35 years, suggesting that a beer could continue to mature for at least that long.
Worthington White Shield, the 5.6 per cent abv bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale, is considered to take four weeks from bottling to come into prime condition, and to stay in condition for another nine months. After that, the beer is likely to be in a less than optimum state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that White Shield will come back into condition at 15 or 16 months old, albeit with an altered taste profile. It will not, though, survive much beyond about 24 months without showing signs of deterioration.
It’s an interesting experiment to take a crate of newly-bottled lowish-gravity bottle-conditioned beers and taste them over three or four months: when I had a wedding stout made for me by the Pitfield brewery, which was bottled “live” in June at around 5 per cent abv, it hit perfection (and very fine it was) two months later, in August. After that it gradually went downhill (unlike, I’m happy to say, my marriage).
My experience is that the effect of bottle ageing on beer varies considerably depending on (1) the alcoholic content of the beer (2) whether it is bottle-conditioned, that is, contains live yeast, or not (3) the conditions under which the bottle is kept and (4) the colour of the beer, with darker beers ageing better than lighter ones. I’ve drunk a 20-year-old pasteurised 8 per cent abv stout that was fine: I doubt the same would be true of a pale beer that old, even one that strong.
Indeed, while the pale-coloured bottle-conditioned Vintage Ale from Fuller Smith and Turner of Chiswick, 8.5 per cent abv is best first drunk at around nine to 12 months old, it is likely to hit its peak at around two years old, and although it will continue to mature and change for several years after that, from five years old onwards the direction is likely to be down. Experiments suggest that the maturation takes place in “waves”, so that a beer which is in fine condition at, eg 30 months may have deteriorated at 36 months, be back on form at 42 months, deteriorated again at 48 months and so on.
Stronger beers – those over 10 or 11 per cent abv – and particularly dark beers may need up to five years before becoming drinkable, with the “young” beer showing a distinct meaty or “umami” character that gradually disappears. Thomas Hardy Ale, 11.7 per cent abv, when brewed by Eldridge Pope was undrinkable at anything less than a year or 18 months: the O’Hanlon’s version was rather more welcoming when young. Other changes that take place in bottle-conditioned beers as they age are an increase in alcohol content, so that a beer bottled at 11 per cent abv might climb to 12 per cent after several years; a darkening or melanisation of pale beers; the development of “fruity” flavours that can range from cherries to plums; and the appearance of a vinous character. However, the very strongest beers look to have considerable potential life: I’m still enjoying drinking Whitbread Celebration Ale, 11 per cent abv when it was bottled, almost 20 years on.
Although there are references to cask-ageing of beers for 10 or more years from the 18th century onwards (and the tradition of laying down a cask of very strong ale when the “young master ” was born, to be drunk when he came of age 21 years later, lasted through until the 20th century), early mentions of bottle-aged beers in the UK seem to be rare. The earliest I have found is an advertisement in The Times of London in September 1843 for quart and pint bottles of “Bass No 1, commonly known as Burton Ale” of “either the present season’s brewing or from two to four years old.”
It was a version of Bass No 1, Ratcliff Ale, that was brewed and bottled in 1869 to celebrate the birth of a son, Harry Ratcliff, to one of the company’s partners, and a stash of Ratcliff Ale was discovered in cellars at Bass’s Burton upon Trent brewery in 2006. The beer was still sound and drinkable, despite being almost 140 years old, with a flavour, to me, between sherry and smoky Christmas pudding. Bass No 1 is also the beer inside bottles of King’s Ale, brewed in 1902, which, again, still prove drinkable today when opened.
When brewers started expecting their bottled beers to be cellared for years, I don’t know: I’ve not found a reference to regularly produced “dated” bottle-conditioned beers before the London brewer Barclay Perkins began carrying the year of brewing on the label of its Imperial Russian Stout, from at least 1948. Imperial Russian Stout was matured, in the 1930s, anyway, for at least a year in the bottle before being put on sale. IRS ceased being produced in 1993, but bottles of the ’92 are still very good.
The rules then, if you fancy trying some bottle ageing, are:
1) Don’t bother with anything less than 5 per cent abv, unless it’s (a) bottle-conditioned (b) preferably dark, and (c) only for a few months.
2) For a beer between 5 per cent and 7.5 per cent abv, don’t bother keeping it longer than 24 months, it’s likely to start deteriorating after than, if not before.
3) For a bottle-conditioned beer more than 7.5 but less than 10 per cent abv, several months may be needed before it is drinkable at all, and it should last in drinkable condition between five and 10 years. However, beware of the “waves” of drinkability, and if you find one bottle less drinkable than the last one you opened, you may find that if you wait a few months before opening the next, the beer comes back on form again.
4) For a beer more than 10 per cent abv, it may not be drinkable at all for at least a year, and it could be two years old before getting into any stride, but it is very likely to remain extremely satisfying for 10 years or more.
5) All the above depends on storing the bottles (a) upright (b) out of the light (c) at a constant temperature, or at least one that does not vary rapidly, and never higher than room temperature at worst (so yes to a wardrobe; no to alongside the boiler).