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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