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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