Questions & Answers: How Long do Vintage Beers Keep?

Beers ageing in our 'cellar'.

“How long do old beers keep before becoming undrinkable? I recently came across some old bottles I’d forgotten about including a Whitbread Celebration Ale from 1992 and Teignworthy Edwin Tucker’s Victorian Stock Ale (2000 vintage), the label of which says it ‘is designed to mature and improve in the bottle over several decades’. It’s 16 years old now – will it get any better? In what way?” — Brian, Exeter

We’ve had mixed experiences of drinking really old beer. A c.1980 bottle of Adnams’s Tally Ho barley wine that we picked up in a junk shop was interesting but, ultimately, a bit grim; while a dusty, tatty bottle of 30-year-old imperial stout we drank at Kulminator in Antwerp was one of the best things we’ve ever tasted.

Whitbread Celebration Ale from 1992 was, said Martyn Cornell, still tasting good in 2011. Others have found plenty to enjoy in beers from 1902 and even (Martyn Cornell again) from 1875:

Amazingly, there was still a touch of Burtonian sulphur in the nose, together with a spectrum of flavours that encompassed pears, figs, liquorice, charred raisins, stewed plums, mint, a hint of tobacco, and a memory of cherries. It was dark, powerful and still sweet…

Edwin Tucker Stock Ale 2000 vintage label.

But there isn’t much information out there about how Edwin Tucker’s Stock Ale in particular is responding to ageing — there are no reviews on RateBeer, for example. Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones did write an impressionistic review a while back, though, so we asked his advice. He says:

I had one in 2013 and then another I think a year later and it was starting to turn. I would suggest drinking now and hope for a sherry-like character.

In general, extreme ageing of beers would seem to be, in technical terms, a mug’s game, and even strong ales brewed with cellaring in mind begin to lose their sparkle after a while. Patrick Dawson, the author of the definitive book on this subject, 2014’s Vintage Beer, says in Chapter 3:

A decent English barley wine will easily continue to develop positive characteristics for 6 to 8 years, with some examples capable of 10 to 15 years. Exceptional versions have been known to go 50-plus years in the proper conditions, but very few beers are currently being brewed… to justify this amount of ageing.

We emailed Mr Dawson to see if he had any specific advice in this case. He says:

Well, I have to be honest and say that I’ve never had the privilege to try an Edwin Tucker’s Stock Ale, so I can’t give a specific recommendation. However, I will say that 16 years is a long, long time for a beer to mature. It takes an incredibly special beer to develop positively past this point. Cantillon’s Gueuze, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, and the Bass Corker barleywines being a few notable examples. When presented with this situation, of an unknown beer that has been aged a long time already, I always say to open it. My logic is that it’s better for a beer a bit too young and brash, than over-the-hill and dull.

So, to summarise, don’t sit on special beers for too long or they’ll probably cease to be special. After all, you can’t take them with you.

Note: Brian’s question edited for brevity and clarity. Updated 08/04/2016 to add Patrick Dawson’s email advice.

19 thoughts on “Questions & Answers: How Long do Vintage Beers Keep?”

  1. Hmmm, I’ve done quite a lot of aging of Belgian beers, and I would say that especially the stronger darker beers are going to keep improving for between 10 – 20 years at least, but as with wine they need to be stored correctly i.e. a consistently cool dark room, also corked bottles should be laid down whereas crown capped bottles should be kept upright.

        1. Ha, no worries. Really hoped you’d found *another* book about ageing vintage beers.

  2. Furthest I’ve gone was 7 or 8 years with a fullers vintage **** me, I’ll do that again. No idea what it’s optimum age is and would take expensive experiment to find out.

    1. Fullers themselves have found an old stash of the vintage ale – you can order single bottles of the 1996 vintage for the bargain price of about £250. I do remember drinking the 2005 & 2006 vintages side by side (in 2014 I think) – that was a sublime experience.

  3. Actually I drank my great aunts homebrew, been a good 15 years since she even been able to stand when we cleared flat. It may have improved with age no idea how bad it was originally.

  4. The key issue is storing the beer in cellar like conditions, and with stable temperatures over the year. The low energy reactions that happen in the bottle, do not all happen at the same speed. They also dont accelerate uniformly with rising temperature. So an aging beer that has been subject to seasonal variations (like in an attic) or room temperature fluctuations will not hold its shape the same way that a beer that has been correctly cellared.

    1. Yeah, my storage conditions are pretty much the diametric opposite of ideal and I’ve still been impressed by how good the beers I’ve opened so far have turned out. I’ve become a bit of a steady-temperature sceptic.

  5. I have a 2011 case of Coniston #9 Barley Wine in my garage – which I dip into occasionally. The original, rather cloying, fortified wine quality is declining, much to the beer’s benefit.

    I have experimented with ageing others: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout was particularly bad when aged; Anchor’s Our Special always ages very gracefully. Sierra Nevada’s Celebration I find undrinkable without a minimum of 8 months or so to knock the edges off.

  6. Bigfoot is best after a couple of years, in 2010 did a vertical tasting of all Fuller’s vintages from the start, remarkable, have a Greene King Abbot from the 1970s in the cellar, just for nostalgia, don’t think that will be much cop. 9 Thomas Hardys from 1998 await for later this year when my lad turns 18, with a bit of luck he’s ask for Punk IPA (one of his favourites alongside Schneider Weisse) and give me them.

  7. Had an 84 Samichlaus christmas day on 2014 it was amazing. Had a couple circa 1970s Adnams Tally Ho which again were amazing. All that sherry flavour goes down a treat. No alcohol burn or carb. The samichlaus also had a great deal of residual sugars meaning the mouth feel was still full even though the time should have thinned it out.

  8. I still have a bottle of Adam’s Tally Ho that I bottled myself into Newquay Steam flip tops from a Pin in 1990. I (and a few others) drank most of them after around 5 years and they were fantastic with rich, winey flavours and a touch of frizzante. I’m up for opening the last one if you are!

  9. I’ve got a case of Higsons Royal Wedding Ale 1981 under the bed.
    Was good in 1981, not tried it since !

    1. Fred — we tried some of St Austell’s 1981 Royal Wedding ale at the brewery. It was just (if I remember rightly) HSD in a fancy bottle but had aged surprisingly well, which is to say, it wasn’t disgusting. But it wasn’t that nice either. Not as nice as, say, a fresh bottle of HSD.

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