“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…
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.