Q&A: Beers for Stashing

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

Any recommendations for stash beers?” – Rob G.

This ques­tion came up in the con­text of a Twit­ter dis­cus­sion in which some­one shared a pho­to of their col­lec­tion of spe­cial beers int­ed­ed for age­ing. It includ­ed Fuller’s Vin­tage Ale, Old Chim­ney’s Good King Hen­ry, Courage Russ­ian Impe­r­i­al and Lees Har­vest Ale, which is a pret­ty good list to begin with.

Now, we’re not real­ly into age­ing beer our­selves, pure­ly because we haven’t got the time, space or mon­ey to do it prop­er­ly, but we’re cer­tain­ly inter­est­ed and so have had a go at answer­ing this ques­tion. We sus­pect more use­ful advice will emerge in the com­m­ments.

First, some thoughts on gen­er­al prin­ci­ples.

One rea­son for build­ing a col­lec­tion is to enable com­par­i­son over time, either by drink­ing the same beer at inter­vals and keep­ing notes, or by drink­ing mul­ti­ple vin­tages of the same beer in a so-called ‘ver­ti­cal tast­ing’. With that in mind it makes sense to focus on bet­ter-estab­lished brew­eries that have been pro­duc­ing a big stout or bar­ley wine for some years and look set to con­tin­ue brew­ing it for a few years more. That way you should be able to col­lect a set worth play­ing with. There’s also a sort of insur­ance in buy­ing from brew­eries who know what they’re doing, and whose beer is less like­ly to reveal flaws and off-flavours over time.

When we spoke to Jez­za (@BonsVoeux1) for our recent arti­cle on Bel­gium obses­sives in CAM­RA’s BEER mag­a­zine he men­tioned that when stock­ing his col­lec­tion of aged and age­ing beer he now buys “huge quan­ti­ties at a time”. That’s because he fre­quent­ly found him­self wish­ing he’d bought a lot more of a beer as it reached a state of per­fec­tion after many years hid­den in his cup­board. So we’d say that means look­ing for beers that aren’t pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive and which you can con­ceive of buy­ing by the case, per­haps with only a bit of winc­ing and dig­ging around for cop­pers down the back of the sofa.

Or, to put all that anoth­er way, this is one area where ‘bor­ing’, easy-to-buy beers and brew­eries are prob­a­bly a safer bet than obscu­ri­ties.

We found that the Fuller’s Past Mas­ters 1893 Dou­ble Stout got bet­ter over the course of a cou­ple of years, and the bot­tle we found in a Lon­don pub that must have been three years old was aston­ish­ing­ly good. You won’t find any of that around now but that’s an exam­ple of the kind of beer we should have bought a lot more of and left alone. Fuller’s Impe­r­i­al Stout, a new batch of which is out now, is a sim­i­lar beer (but not quite as good, in our view) and will prob­a­bly age in sim­i­lar ways.

A beer Jez­za men­tioned as a par­tic­u­lar focus of his age­ing project was De Dolle Stille Nacht which, when avail­able, can be picked up in the UK for between £4–5 per 330ml bot­tle. (He has bot­tles going back to 1989.)

Bel­gian beers, tend­ing to the strong and sweet, gen­er­al­ly age well. (But triples, wheat beers and hop-focused beers prob­a­bly won’t yield as much from age­ing, even if they’ll sell ’em to you at Kul­mi­na­tor.) Rochefort 10 is one we’d con­sid­er fill­ing a cel­lar with, espe­cial­ly if you can pick it up in Bel­gium at Bel­gian prices – it’s get­ting pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive in the UK.

Orval (not espe­cial­ly strong or sweet) is one famous exam­ple of a beer often drunk aged and which has the ben­e­fit of show­ing its devel­op­ment rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly, over the course of months rather than years. If you bought a batch of twelve every six months, at around £30–40 a go, you’d be able to com­pare fresh with six-month, with one-year, with two-years, and so on, and soon learn its ways and your own pref­er­ences. (It is also good for mag­i­cal­ly enhanc­ing oth­er beers.)

The Beer Nut’s side project, Stash Killer, is a use­ful source of knowl­edge on what time does to spe­cif­ic beers. Of an 8‑year-old West­malle Dubbel, an easy to find, con­sis­tent and afford­able beer, he says:

There’s sweet sher­ry in the flavour… which is pos­si­bly just oxi­da­tion at work, but it does trans­form the beer in a fun and pleas­ant way. It has­n’t become mag­i­cal­ly heav­ier than usu­al, but it has ele­ments of the things you find in dou­ble-dig­it dark Bel­gian-style beers: the fruit, the cake, the round­ed estery greasi­ness, though not the heat. It still remains light­ly tex­tured and easy drink­ing… Seems to me like a handy way to upgrade your West­malle Dubbel into some­thing more com­plex is leave it alone for a few years.

That sounds like some­thing we’ll have to try. Do look at his oth­er posts for more sug­ges­tions.

If you want to read some­thing more sub­stan­tial on this we rec­om­mend Patrick Daw­son’s 2014 book Vin­tage Beer which con­tains detailed notes on how to age beer, what to expect from the process, gen­er­al advice on which types of beer gen­er­al­ly age well, as well as tips on which spe­cif­ic beers to buy.

Now, to those com­ments – tell us, what’s worked for you?

7 thoughts on “Q&A: Beers for Stashing”

  1. Ta for the shout-out. The stash is almost deplet­ed so I’ll be putting the project on ice for a while soon, though not before I open the 2013 Courage Impe­r­i­al Russ­ian Stout.

  2. Gen­er­al­ly strong, dark and bot­tle con­di­tioned (like a lot of Bel­gian beers). Usu­al­ly not a good idea to have beers with adjuncts (for exam­ple cof­fee), the flavours in those tend to have a lim­it­ed lifes­pan and very rarely change for the bet­ter. I’d add West­vletern 12 and the stronger Stru­isse beers, such as the var­i­ous Pan­nepot vari­eties

  3. I had a bot­tle of Buxton’s Tsar Bom­ba impe­r­i­al stout this year (gen­er­a­tion III, from 2013 I think) which uses a rein­car­nat­ed bret­tanomyces strain from a 1970s Courage impe­r­i­al stout bar­rel.

    It was phe­nom­e­nal. Slick, mas­sive­ly choco­late with a wild tang that only enhanced and defined the oth­er flavours (includ­ing wafts of not­ed Grandad cologne Tabac).

    More eas­i­ly avail­able, I can also rec­om­mend Anchor’s Bar­ley­wine, which def­i­nite­ly improves and broad­ens with age, and Brooklyn’s Black Choco­late Stout.

    Nev­er aged it, but I do won­der how De La Senne’s Brux­el­len­sis would turn out after a cou­ple of years. It’s quite Orval-ish.

  4. A fif­teen year old Orval is often superb – still full of con­di­tion but with a bou­quet of fruit sal­ad (as in the chews). You almost expect a swarm of fruit flies to escape from the bot­tle. Even bot­tles that don’t reach this poten­tial are still pret­ty good, just not as com­plex.

    Fuller’s Vin­tage Ale is always a safe bet. I drank a 2016 last night which punched well above it’s 8.5% stat­ed strength.

    Mot of the strong, dark Bel­gians will nor­mal­ly do well but West­malle Tripel is a strong, gold­en ale that devel­ops sher­ry notes when ages for 5 years + while still retain­ing some bit­ter­ness.

    1. I had a 2005 Orval a cou­ple of months ago and it was not par­tic­u­lar­ly great. Decent but noth­ing more. I think the ten year best before is there for a rea­son.

  5. I’ve been cel­lar­ing beer for many years. I was prompt­ed by read­ing an arti­cle in, of all things, The Read­ers Digest prob­a­bly around 1969 which men­tioned sev­er­al beers that could eas­i­ly kept for 10, 15 or even 20 years. So I did. The hard­est part is look­ing a the last bot­tle and decid­ing whether to drink it.

  6. It’s very dif­fi­cult to put a time lim­it on some beers. But what’s excit­ing is that your cho­sen tast­ing inter­vals mean that you might be tast­ing a whole new strength of flavour. It requires a lit­tle thought to get start­ed – and a lit­tle resistence to leave them be for a while, but results can real­ly pay off. A nice rit­u­al for those of us seri­ous about good alco­hol.

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