View Full Version : Can Time Improve Beer Once Packaged?

04-30-2008, 08:13
I was talking with Doug Philips over the events just passed about this.

He has some Anchor Bock beer (from the famed Anchor brewery in San Francisco) that seems to improve over time.

This is a question I've had the chance to study both theoretically and practically through tasting over some 30 years.

My conclusion is, that a pasteurised bottled or canned beer may in some cases improve over a period of some months if kept cold. A kind of "lagering" (continued mellowing through storage at cold temperatures) may continue during storage of the packages. True, this isn't supposed to happen with heat pasteurised beer since pasteurisation renders beer stable (it kills the residual yeasts and therefore precludes further slow fermentation or other reactions). Still, I think a few months sometimes knits together a beer, I have found this with some porters and other dark beers in particular. The Anchor Bock I last had from Doug was well-knitted with not a hint of oxidation and was very mellow. I have found that when I buy Pilsener Urquel at, say, one or two months from packaging (which is possible in Ontario), sometimes it seems better when kept another month or two in the fridge. I am not sure why this is, again I think maybe a kind of lagering continues despite the fact that this product is heat-pasteurised for export at any rate.

However, some pasteurised bottled and canned beers, perhaps most, do not improve with such keeping in my experience. In fact, they get worse and in particular acquire either a damp paper oxidative smell or an unpleasant port-like fruitiness, or both. Even if they avoid this fate, over-age bottled beer at best will be a pale imitation of the fresh product. Hop flavor seems to lift off quickly or degrade, the malts and other cereals get dull, and the beer just has lost its life.

The typical, filtered but non-pasteurised microbrewery beer in my experience rarely improves from keeping and in fact the opposite is almost always true. Damp paper oxidation is a constant risk with such products. A very strong beer will resist time better, but here too I find that the air gets in and degrades the tastes, usually. A beer at 10% abv kept cool for a year may not show much change, but at 5% abv, I wouldn't take the chance.

Now, if this micro beer is bottled with its residual yeast or dosed with a different variety than it was fermented with, storage life improves and so does the palate, sometimes. The yeast in the bottle actually consumes some of the oxygen in the container and this delays the onset of oxidation. Also, a bit more alcohol can sometimes be produced through ongoing fermentation (although how many cidery/sour bottle-conditioned beers have I had where the ferment continued in an uncontrolled way and the beer became no good?).

What is to be drawn from all this? A beer may improve with time but the odds are against it. Once packaged by the brewer (who has factored in the necessary aging to avoid "green" beer - i.e., it's already been aged when you get it), it's as complete, generally, as it's gonna get. No valid analogy in my view can be drawn with the long keeping of wines. Beer is best when it is purchased.

However, like the case of certain whiskeys open for a time in the bottle or possible kept closed for decades, the passage of time does seem sometime to result in a better product. This kind of fortuitous improvement, a serendipity if you will, is one of the pleasing results of sampling whiskeys. It can happen with beer too but one shouldn't count on it.


04-30-2008, 08:19
For once I agree with you.
Most beers don't improve with age, especially the lighter adjunct laden varieties.
I have experienced some miraculous older beers that keep improving with age. One such beer was a 1997 keg of Anchor Christmas Ale that was stored for 7 years in a walk-in and uncovered by the new owners of the site where it was stored.
I will say that spices, hops, high alcohol and big body seem to be key components of beers that age well.

04-30-2008, 08:23
What, you and I disagree? :)

That Anchor Christmas sounds great!


04-30-2008, 09:08
I agree, few beers improve with age. The oils and such in hops are very time sensitive. Hoppy is best fresh, but some of the maltier brews do age well. I think that as stuff floculates and settles sometimes it just works.

04-30-2008, 09:34
Specialiy house are working on beers so they can be aged like wines. A buddy of mine is working on some of those beers. There are a few that age very well, none of which are pale beers....

04-30-2008, 11:55
The only beers I've heard of that improve with age are barley wines, and those should still be drunk within 5 or so years.

04-30-2008, 12:19

04-30-2008, 12:52
I had heard about that discovery and tasting, and read other descriptions, Protz' are very good.

I suspect the sherry/maderized tastes he describes are a rather prolonged oxidation, but hey, they aren't making any more beer 138 years old! Wish I could have been there.


04-30-2008, 14:14
I've had beers up to the 10-12 yo range. They can be incredible. Gales' Prize Old Ale and J W Lees' are both fine examples of beers that are capable of aging.

04-30-2008, 14:36
I've got a bottle of the Sam Adams Triple Bock, and the last year they made it was 1996. Maybe I'll bring it next fall. It's a tiny bottle, though, so there won't be much to go around.

04-30-2008, 15:25
I know that Brooklyn Brewery's Chocolate Stout (an Imperial Stout-- rather strong) can bottle-age for about 1-2 years.

Thomas Hardy Ale, which is about 12% ABV and is bottle-conditioned, can age for a few years as well. Like the age-worthy wines, there is a fair amount of sediment in the bottle. The ale itself is typically served warm in a large brandy snifter.

04-30-2008, 17:34
The Germans supposedly say, beer is like bread - best enjoyed fresh.


05-01-2008, 08:18
Interesting post, Gary. The timing is relevant to me, in that I had a positive experience recently, with a beer getting better. I have posted here previously, that in November of 06, I purchased a case of Anheuser-Busch's Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale...and hated it. The vanilla bean influence was too overpowering, and distracted from anything the bourbon barrel aging did to the brew. I pawned off as much of it as I could on my "friends", but ended up working through most of it by Spring 07. Recently, a year-and-a-half later, I found a couple of left over bottles at the back of the beer fridge, and decided to give them another try. I thought they were MUCH better than the first ones from the past. The vanilla overload had subsided, and a richer beer flavor came through. I had the last 2 after that, that confirmed my experience on the first.

Not a scientific result for sure, but I don't think I imagined it.



05-01-2008, 08:52
Interesting, Joe, thanks. This is an example I think of a refrigerated, well-flavored beer becoming better.

In the 1800's, a classic time for cold storage of beers was upwards of 9 months. When Horlacher in Allentown, PA vaunted its Perfection lager aged 9 months in the 1970's, it knew the traditions and how beer had been made 100 years earlier. Of course, as we saw from the historical discussions drawn from the Brooklyn Eagle and other newspapers, even by the 1870's many brewers were taking short-cuts and abbreviating aging times, but still the gold standard was to age lager beers (ales are a different story) the life of a pre-born child.

This long cold aging would mellow out the beer, round the tastes, produce a bit more alcohol.

Even with a pasteurised product such as I assume that A/B beer was, it seems something similar sometimes occurs when the beer is kept cold in the fridge (not too cold, since over-chilling can render it cloudy and lifeless). I know some commercial brewers agree because Michael Jackson used to write of some beers that were pasteurised that their brewers felt benefitted from keeping for a while, an example is Carnegie Porter from Finland I believe it is.

Still, in general, the best chances for a true bottle maturation are with an unpasteurised product which is bottled unfiltered. For example, the Belgian Trappist beers like Chimay and Orval clearly can go for years in the bottle and there are many other Belgian, U.S. and other examples.


05-01-2008, 09:04
I think this is clear but I might add that lagering, which originated in cold Bavarian caves and is a long slow fermentation and maturation at cold temperatures where the yeasts flocculate to the bottom of the vessel, is parallel to bottle maturation of an unfiltered beer. Some of the Belgian beers are fermented twice before bottling and again in the bottle. My original point was that despite the sterile nature of pasteurised beer, perhaps something similar occurs when the beers are stored cold for a time (except of course no new alcohol will be produced).

Carnegie Porter is an excellent example. I have never had one that was off in flavor even though as an import which doesn't sell much I would think, it would be months or perhaps years old by the time it gets here (you used to be able to buy it in New York City I know, and e.g., The Gingerman has it there or did the last time I visited). It might be though that a rich beer like this just resists time better than other types of beer. Porter seems to have an unusual capacity to "age" well, this was noted in Michael Combrune's 1700's-era brewing text, incidentally.


05-01-2008, 10:56
As a student we didn`t had the money to buy the good stuff so this is what we did,bought some Grolschbeer(in our country unpasteurized)put some sugar and yeast in the bottle put it (in the summer) outside for 1 or 2 weeks and we had our own "dubbel".A few years ago i cleaned up my parents attic and found a Gouden Carolus(d`or) a Belgian strong barleybeer which i opened and the taste really improved a lot,i went the next day to the shop to compare it with a recent bottle.Seems it only works out good with quality beers and not with Heineken or Bud.

05-01-2008, 12:14
That's interesting.

But I think if you primed (is the technical term) bottles even of pasteurised beer, you would still get a seconday fermentation.

In fact, a sterile environment might be a better medium for a subsequent ferment since the yeast action of the priming wouldn't be affected by the older yeast in there. For this reason, I understand some bottle-conditioned beers are filtered and pasteurised before being primed for a subsequent fermentation, and often the yeast added is different than the first one. It may be different because the brewer wants it to precipitate easily, which is a characteristic of lager yeasts but not all ale ones (it is ales traditionally that are re-fermented in this way - once lager is "ready" due to its own preliminary aging it should not need any such further treatment). If more of the same yeast is added, perhaps in such case there is less need to ensure the brew is pasteurized before the addition, but in any case I know this is done occasionally with commercial, bottle-conditioned beers.

Did any of those bottles every explode? :) It is probably not a good idea to do this in home conditions unless one is very experienced I would think.


05-01-2008, 12:24
Actually I recall now that sometimes aged lager is krausened, which means that a young vigorous beer is added to stimulate a further ferment so the beer will be sufficiently gassy. Bottle-conditioning of ales was done for a similar purpose, i.e., the initial fermentation(s) often produced a desirable alcohol level but left the beer too flat. You could just inject CO2 and some brewers do that, but the palate may not have the same characteristics as if a natural CO2 is encouraged. So in this sense, lager and ale are both susceptible to a priming-type treatment and in fact I have seen "real lager" at some beer festivals. Still, the process would seem less justified with lager since it should have all the roundness and lack of green taste it needs from its initial aging or "lagering". Ales today, too, are cold-lagered in most cases, so I suppose one gets a kind of convergence here.


05-05-2008, 12:27
Light beers/hoppy/low alcohol (in any combo or alone) generally do not benefit from aging. Hops and alcohol are the preservatives, if either is lacking then the beer will suffer.

The hop characterists are the first to go with time.

Big malty complex dark beers high in alcohol and hops will last the longest and benefit the most. Although over time the taste of the beer will change dramatically as the hop notes die off and the malt character comes to the forground. Beer will not last forever though.

Additionally, some beers need time to age before they lose their green taste and mature to drinkability. I have an Imperial Stout in the wings aging until Thanksgiving.

I would say anything made with Lager yeast shouldn't be aged, and only big beers made with ale yeast should.

05-05-2008, 13:37
Yes, this sums it up for me. Lager beer's pre-sale cold storage period (lagering) is a kind of aging, and the times today seem much shorter than 100 years ago however it is possible that production improvements (e.g., in yeast quality) have off-set some of the need for long maturation times.

I recall too an interview with a Pilsener Urquel brewer (a brewery I much admire) who said that they used to keep beer longer in the past because they couldn't sell it as fast as today, so clearly there are considerations which sometimes play into it beyond the purely technical/brewing in nature!

We have a new import in Canada, Bavaria from Holland. I had this on draft the other day and thought it was superb with a malty base and good mellow yeast-derived character. An import like this, when offered in excellent condition, still trumps most microbrewery lagers in my opinion.

Lager is a little harder to nail down I think, micros seem great at doing ales but lager beer is a more method-oriented way to brew and the best of Europe's breweries seem to have a leg up on us in this regard.


05-05-2008, 15:54
Very few US based companies that put out a lager. And for good reason: the macro BMC's run this with their corn and rice sugar swill.

Lightening Brewery in San Diego specalizes in lagers and pilsners.

I've always found the entire catagory rather bland and uninspiring.

05-05-2008, 19:01
Sam Adams is pretty good. So is Lagunitas' Czech pilsener style. There are many others but it's not an easy style to get right consistently, or put another way, ale styles are more forgiving. Then too, ale is inherently the more complex drink.


05-06-2008, 09:14
I've always found the entire catagory rather bland and uninspiring.

The first of the Wisconsin microbreweries all did lagers. Surviving (and still doing mostly lager) are Capital in Middleton and Sprecher and Lakefront in Milwaukee. OK, Sprecher does mostly root beer these days, but most of the beers they make are lagers.

These are all over ten years old. Most of the recent (5-10 years) microbreweries are doing ales.

I personally prefer ales, so I have no problem with this.

07-19-2008, 21:32
Funny I am drinking a beer right now and the label reads "Excellant when young and better with age". That beer is a Specher Abby triple Belgian Style Ale. It is brewed with a Belgain Trappist triple yeast culture. But this a unfiltered golden ale. I also believe that "Bottle Conditioned" Beers will Age with Grace.

07-19-2008, 21:47
The Germans supposedly say, beer is like bread - best enjoyed fresh.


The Germans also drink thin, watery, over-carbonated beer! ;)

dave ziegler
07-21-2008, 12:37
At Home I have a Bottle of original Narragansett in a amber Bottle from 1962 I got from someone who had it sitting in a basement or somewhere like that looking at it it looks to be fine but, It most likely would not be it even looks a little fizzy? I offten thought should I chill it up and see what it is like but being a regular Beer it would I guess be rotten. Just thought about it reading these Stories!
Dave Z
Beer Its Not Just A Beverage Beer Is Food

09-04-2008, 03:32
For those of you familiar with Cooper's Beer from Australia, they release an "Extra Strong Vintage Ale" annually. It is 7.5% and they have said some of them have up to 5 years cellaring potential.
Here (http://www.coopers.com.au/media/files/2088.pdf) is a press release from last year's vintage.

I just got back from Sydney, and found a case and a half in my Dad's garage from the original 1999 release. I took a 6 pack for a friend of mine that now works for Coopers. It will be interesting to see if this beer is still good.
Would have grabbed some for myself, but I just don't drink beer.


09-04-2008, 08:26
I've got a bottle of the Sam Adams Triple Bock, and the last year they made it was 1996. Maybe I'll bring it next fall. It's a tiny bottle, though, so there won't be much to go around.

don't be surprised if it tastes like soy sauce....this beer is either love it or hate it and you may feel like you're trying to wash the taste outta your mouth for days (like me) or you may like it.....SA was "experimenting " and I don't know what it was, maybe the maple syrup, but this beer did not hold up at all

lots of beers are made to age but it's not an exact science...whether it tastes better, worse, or just the same are clearly just opinion. I've had some big beers too young and IMO they were much improved after a couple years in the cellar. I've had others that had gone too far to sherry and wet cardboard.I have some gueze in my cellar with a best before date of 2021.
I tried a Thomas Hardy from the first year, 1968, and it was quite interesting but tasted nothing like a bottle even ten years old.As others have noted, stick to big ales be they imperial stouts or Belgian quads and you could get some interesting results...

09-04-2008, 08:37
I agree. Only the stoutest ales and barley wines really improve - sometimes -with long aging. Sometimes upwards of a year seems even to improve beers of lesser body. I continue to believe that keeping some lagers cold, especially if not pasteurised, continues a kind of cold lagering.

Only barley wines, which indeed can have a deeply fruity/soy-like taste, are "designed" for long aging IMO and perhaps too some Imperial and strong stouts. If these are bottle-conditioned, aging can make them even better because the yeast in the bottle consumes the residual oxygen in the container which retards oxidation.

However, all things being equal, beer tastes best when sampled soon after bottling or canning or (of course) in draught service.

One thing I cannot abide, like the last writer, is the tell-tale sherry-like flavors of old beer much less cardboardy beer. Even a little of it puts me off and I find too it affects the digestibility of the beer. Perhaps a very little of it does not hurt, but personally I like almost all beers fresh off the line.


09-04-2008, 12:57
I"ve been brewing like a mad man and starting to age some of my big beers. I've got three I've put to rest and all are over 10% ABV. A big Imperial Stout I'll tap at Xmas, a tripple chocolate porter (although I may have fermented this a bit warm and it may taste a bit hot) and recently a Hair of the Dog Adam clone, which is of the Olde Ale style....sort of belgian-ish. I've got 2 other kegs in storage and 2 other beers fermenting right now and in 2 weeks I"ll be doing another 2 beers. Football season is a killer!

Generally the lighter or hoppier the sooner it needs to be consumed as low alcohol means it won't self preserve and the hop acids dissipate within a few months.

09-04-2008, 18:36
Phischy, I've got a few homebrewed strong ales set back to age, too. I also have a bunch of Anchor Old Foghorn, SN Bigfoot, and my favorite, North Coast Old Stock Ale setting about and aging: it will be a lovely vertical tasting one day.

I stumbled across a Chimay Grande Reserve from 1986 when dusty hunting, and I do mean to open that soon: stories abound of the port-like character it can take on with a couple of decades of age on it, but of course I don't know how this was treated prior to my acquisition of the bottle last year.

I'll post taste notes when I open it.