The question of whether or not to age a beer has no simple answer. Some beer drinkers and brewers will tell you that beer only “tastes best” when it’s fresh. That’s probably not true. Beer is far too wide a category to have many “all or nothing” answers. In fact, plenty of beers are aged (for varying times) before they even reach the bottle and benefit from further aging after they’re bottled. As with almost everything in the food and drinks world, misconceptions, nuances, and exceptions to every rule are at play — making the whole “is beer okay if it’s old?” question a muddled one with no simple solutions.
There are a few factors that make this issue confusing. First, much of the conversation centers around a misunderstanding of the difference between “aging” versus degradation (more on that later). Second, the boom of the craft beer industry has led to a reliance on the hop-forward palates of (many of) its proponents. If you want those huge hoppy notes, you need to drink that beer fresh — generally speaking. Further complicating things, small-time craft brewers often lack the space to age beers at all (even lagers).
Point being, it gets messy. But hey, that’s why we’re here. Hopefully, the info below can give a better understanding of why aging beer (or even “old beer”) can be transcendent and also why fresh beer has its place too.
Why Do We Drink Beer When It’s Fresh?
Let’s very broadly overview the process of making beer to help define what’s fresh and what’s not. Malted barley (or other grains and cereals) are milled into a grist. Next, that grist is transferred to a mash tun where hot water is added and sugars are extracted, creating a wort. That wort is then lautered in a lauter tun where the grist is removed and more water is added to pull more sugars — that’s called sparging. The sugary wort is then boiled, hopped, and cooled down for fermentation. That goes into the fermentor. Yeasts are added. And they start to eat sugars to create boozy beer.
But we’re not quite there yet. The last step is conditioning. This is where the yeasts have finished eating sugars (for the most part) but have yet to really dial in the flavors the brewer wants for that beer style. Ale yeasts tend to work faster, meaning an ale can be ready for bottling/drinking within a week or so. Lager yeasts, on the other hand, take a lot longer to absorb unwanted flavors. Some American lagers sit conditioning for up to 20 days. Some German lagers rest for up to a half-a-year.
Right from the gate, we’re already in muddled territory. Is lagering a beer for six months before releasing it “aging?” Technically, maybe not. But storing something for months certainly feels like aging.
Let’s operate off the idea that a classically conditioned beer is a “fresh” beer. This is when certain flavors, especially from the hops, are going to be at their height. Certain brewers aim for particular tastes much in the same way chefs aim for certain tastes in dishes. They want to serve something that has a distinct matrix of flavors. Combinations from hops like juicy tropical fruits with buttery creaminess or pine resins with cannabis levels of dank are both common directions to go in when we’re talking IPAs, for instance. And, if that’s what the brewer is aiming to serve, that should always be respected and enjoyed as freshly as possible to achieve those ends.
Hops, more than anything else in beer, is what fades over time. That being said, as the hops fade, other flavors start to come forward and bloom in the beer, depending on the style, malts, hops, and intent of the brewer.