In my opinion, one of the most important practices for getting the most out of your homebrews is to give them enough time in the bottle. I’m sure this is not what Jim Croce intended when he wrote about “saving time in a bottle”, but I still like to sing that beautiful song to my beer on bottling day anyway. Technically, you can go from recipe-to-glass in three weeks (one week to ferment, two weeks to condition). If you’ve got a kegging system, you can cut this time down to one and a half weeks. How great does that sound?!
Unfortunately, like so many things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is… and this is one of those times. The deliciousness factor of your homebrew has a dilema associated with it that states, “The last one you drink usually tastes the best.” If you’re new to homebrewing, I can guarantee you that this is 100% true. It’s not just the psychology of clinging to what is now gone, although I have mourned the passing of the last bottles from several of my favorite batches.
Beer is a living thing. There is always residual yeast that exists in your beer that changes the characteristics of it over time. Wine enthusiasts know and embrace this, while us beer drinkers tend to be a more “instant gratification” kind of crowd. Your beer is like a big party with many flavors, each competing for your attention. As your beer sits and conditions in the bottle over a period of one month, two months, three months, it will change. Some flavors that may have stuck out like a sore thumb when you bottled it will have smoothed over. The flavors mix and dance together in more and more harmony, the longer it sits and waits. This also means that you have to sit and wait with it.
Of course, there’s an upper limit to spending time in a bottle. Beer that’s been sitting in a bottle for over a year is going to be headed on its way back down the flavor scale. I’ve been known to open bottles as old as two years old and still enjoy them, but they are not the beers they once were at six months old.
I try to aim for drinking my beers when they’re peaking in flavor. This is the point where they’ve matured in the bottle, but before they start their downward aging spiral to yuck. In my experience, lighter ABV beers (3% – 5.5%) are peaked when they are 3-4 months old. Higher ABV beers (5.5% – 8%) are peaking around 5-6 months. And the really big beers (8% – 11%) are best enjoyed between 9-12 months of age.
Does this seem like a long time? If so, it’s because it is! Tom Petty said it best when he sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Like I said before, this process of maturing in a bottle is something that winemakers learn to live with and accept as an important part of the process. Check in for my next blog post where I’ll talk about how to make the wait not so bad.