I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that your beer cellar is a completely appropriate, legitimate pursuit; the bad news is that you’re probably doing it wrong.
See, though an enlightened few have been aging beer for a long, long time, the practice has flourished alongside the glut of limited release and #whalezbro beers flooding the market. As a result, many new cellars are simply overstocked with rare beer that’s just getting worse and worse by the week. You’re not supposed to age everything people.
Hence this list. These beers not only unequivocally benefit from a little, or a lot, of time, but are relatively affordable and easy to get. You’re welcome.
Suggested Retail: $12.99/750ml
Farmhouse ales, depending on the yeast strain and malt bill, are a supremely underrated candidate for aging. As far as readily available domestic examples are concerned, you can’t do much better than Saison Rue. Why? A few reasons…
First, it has the alcohol and sturdy malt bill, bolstered by the addition of rye, to give it staying power and complexity; remember, the flavor components that result from aging beer are mostly due to certain ingredients fading, allowing others to come to the forefront. So, as the hops begin to fade away, the considerable quantity of pale and rye malt will make themselves more known.
Second, there are the hops themselves to consider. Saison Rue is a very hoppy beer when fresh, resulting in great potential for oxidized hop notes: think slightly funky, expensive cheese rinds.
Last, but maybe most importantly, is the yeast strain. This beer enjoys a mixed saccharomyces/brettanomyces fermentation, which will slowly eat up more sugars in the beer over time, drying it out and making its own earthy, peppery profile more prevalent. This matches up perfectly with the oxidized hop profile, resulting in a beer completely apart from where it began.
Sweet spot: 3-5 years
Suggested Retail: $16.99/six-pack
Real talk: most imperial stouts don’t age that well. Now, they’ll certainly be just fine for a few years or so, but you’re not going to get much out of all that waiting besides a realization that you’re now sitting on $50 worth of sub-par beer. Bell’s Expedition, however, is a stout apart.
Realistically speaking, Expedition Stout has one major factor in its favor that rockets it past its contemporaries when it comes to aging potential: malt. Just, like, a truckload, a blue whale of malt. Coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans, barrel-aging, and all manner of adjuncts and additions can certainly enhance the flavor of a big stout, but there truly is no substitute for knowing your malts, and how to manipulate them.
When young, Expedition is delicious, but incredibly hoppy (try an aged bottle next to a fresh one; the fresh bottle tastes like a black IPA in comparison). And that makes sense: a massive hop bill is required in order to balance the rich malts. Again, as the beer ages, the hops begin to drop out, allowing the malts to come forward.
Over time, Expedition Stout becomes more and more of a liquid fudge bar. Wait just a couple of years if you like bitter, high cacao-percentage chocolates; give it a little more time for richer, mousse-like flavors.
Sweet Spot: 5-8 years
Suggested Retail: $6.99/11.2 oz.
This beer might enjoy the world’s most lopsided ratio of quality to hype. Meaning: it’s probably one of the 10 best in the world, but no one treats it that way. To be clear, now, you won’t find Stille Nacht turding it up on the shelves at Total Wine year-round; The beer typically only makes it to the States every other year anyway. But when it does land, you have a comfortable month or so to grab some.
So what is Stille Nacht? If you really want to pigeonhole it, it’s a Belgian strong ale with a hint of barleywine about it, falling somewhere between Duvel and an old-school East Coast IPA on the color spectrum. Much like Expedition Stout, Stille Nacht makes its bones on the strength of an absurdly huge malt bill: in this case, large quantities of pale malt, punched up by an addition of white candi sugar. De Dolle’s house yeast, an ephemeral, finicky strain, also contributes unique estery notes.
There’s no getting around it: this is a massive, massive beer that, when young, drinks bigger than its 12% alcohol content would indicate. The beer offers huge ripe, sugary citrus, stewed apricot and golden raisin, undercut by a pretty big alcoholic presence. It’s heavenly, but ungainly. A few years just begins to take the boozy edge off, allowing the citrus notes to come through a little more. Around eight years, the beer begins to come into its own, drinking very smoothly, and finding a good middle ground between plum liqueur, stone fruit, and toffee.
As a caveat, I haven’t had this beer older than ten years. But having tasted it at that age, I’m confident it can go another ten, at least.
Sweet Spot: 10+ years
Suggested Retail: $8.99/22 oz.
Regardless of what opinions you might have regarding Stone’s branding, perceived attitude, business decisions and beer-related missteps—hello, entire concept of Vertical Epic—there’s no denying that, by and large, they still produce incredibly high-quality beer at entry-level prices. On that note, if you want to stretch your dollar when building up your beer cellar, there are few better options than Double Bastard.
Essentially a ramped-up version of Arrogant Bastard, a hoppy, beefy amber beer, Double Bastard is officially classified as an American strong ale, a moniker indicative of its imbalance when fresh. Not that it’s a bad beer…far from it. But the high alcohol content, sweet malt and lacerative hop bill need some time to coalesce.
One thing Double Bastard has going for it is how quickly your patience yields dividends. After only a year to 18 months, the aggressive hops are dialed back yet still present, lending the beer a more balanced profile. Wait twice that long, and you’ll have a hop-kissed malt bomb: think nearly-burnt toffee, caramel, raisins dusted with orange zest. After five years, the beer begins to obviously oxidize, but that’s not necessarily a negative in something this strong. Rather, that oxidation manifests itself in sherry and Madeira wine flavors that can get out of hand if you wait too long, but are deliciously complementary at this stage.
Sweet Spot: 3 years
Suggested Retail: $13.99/750ml
Fantome might seem misplaced here; we’re trying, after all, to highlight beers that are relatively easy to come by, and Fantome, in general, is not. However, for whatever reason, Noel seems to stick around on the shelves for an inordinate amount of time. Fortunately, it is probably the best candidate among Fantome’s portfolio for aging.
As with most of the beers on this list, Noel is not a bad beer at all when young; just uneven. A dark saison utilizing the notoriously hard-to-wrangle Fantome yeast, the beer also features a blend of spices, few of which are disclosed, as brewer Dany Prignon is famously secretive—and possibly forgetful—regarding his ingredients. Purely based on the palate, though, there are suggestions of black pepper, orange zest, ginger, cardamom, coriander, and chocolate. The beer is also, whether intentionally or not, smoky, but not to its detriment.
Just two to three years does wonders for this beer. The smoke profile has significantly receded, remaining as a complementary, peripheral note; likewise, there is a subdued spice presence, though still enough to justify the beer’s holiday theme. Also of note is the reduced carbonation; depending on the batch, Fantome beers can be massive gushers, but a little time seems to calm that down a bit.
At four to five years, everything comes together for this beer. The carbonation is lively but silky smooth, the spices pop, the malt bill is rich and toffee-like, and the yeast contributes some welcome zest. In short: liquid caramel apple.
Sweet Spot: 5 years (but it’s Fantome, so go nuts)