Around this time of year (post-Christmas, post-holiday parties, etc.) I end up with a lot of beer in the fridge. Beer I've bought to serve. Beer I've received as a gift. Beer people brought to a party and left behind. So, so much beer.
Talk about First World Problems.
But it occurred to me that, problem of the (over?) privileged that it might be, it's still a legitimate problem. We're also about to head into a month when, like many of us, I'm looking to give my body a rest and ratchet down the alcohol consumption. So we have a real supply-demand issue here. And it occurred to me that this "Full Fridge Dilemma" might be worth approaching in a more systematic way. Some are going to stay. Some are going to go (eventually). And some are going to go right now. It's like FMK, but with your beer.
The Big Sort
The way I see it, I have two goals here. First, I want to drink the beer I have when it's at its best (or, at the very least, before it starts to turn towards its worst). Second, I want to avoid playing catch-up for the rest of the year. This dilemma, if un-addressed, will plague me for months, since I'll still be adding beer to the equation - I need to get ahead of it. Otherwise I'll just be drinking by "best by" date, and that just doesn't sound like fun. I need to clear out some space in this fridge.
So, first things first: sort.
The first sort will be to split out the things that you don't much want to drink anyway - and start playing Santa Claus. If I look in my fridge and see a bunch of strong Belgian ales, then you better believe that anywhere I go for the next 2-3 months I'm going to be gifting them out, so pull them out of the fridge now and put them aside. We all have things we don't often drink but people bring over/gift to us anyway, so treat that Sour Triple IPA like you would a vanilla-scented candle and re-gift it.
The second sort will be to pull things out that you like, but actually improve with age. Grab that Baltic Porter, Russia Imperial, and Belgian Quad and stick them on a rack in your basement. Congratulations, you now have a beer cellar.
Last, sort out beers you know other people will drink: party beer. Grab that half case of Dortmunder, those spare bottles of Pilsner, and that four-pack of dry stout and just put them in any fridge (a cold winter garage usually works great, too). If you keep them cold, they'll be in plenty good shape to offer the next time you have people over (Super Bowl, Academy Awards, whatever).
Congratulations - you should now have much more room in your fridge!
But that was the easy part.
A Question of Priority
Now you need to decide, among those lucky beers still left, what to drink and when. We need an order. Someone's going to be first - someone's going to be last. And whichever beer ends up last on that list is running a risk, because what we're left with (if you've sorted properly) is mostly beer that, like Val Kilmer, isn't aging well.
Lots of people will give you the "hey, just drink what you want!" line. OK, maybe. But I think that if you're really interested in getting the most out of your beer you should take a survey of your fridge and drink them down in this order:
- Hop-forward amber beers: as their bitterness and hop flavors fade, their malts (and they're often in the rich, caramel, melanoidin-y camp) are going to become really assertive, and without that bittering/hop flavor to balance it they can come off as being unpleasantly sweet. You want to get these things off your shelf ASAP - and don't let terminology fool you. Thinks like English Pale Ales/ESBs are basically amber, and they can go bad in a hurry, leaving you drinking papery butter water.
- Amber lagers: "What? But they're lagers! They'll keep forever!" No, no they won't. Maybe they won't turn quite as fast as the hoppy ambers, but they'll still trend towards the too-rich. I also notice that the clean fermentations they're subject to make staling/oxidation flavors a little more obvious, too.
- IPAs: Usually, time is a "muting" actor on the flavor of IPAs, so they have a little more staying power. They lose that super-bright hop flavor pretty quickly (2-3 weeks?), but after that it's a slower trip down during which you still taste the hops, just not as prominently. They'll be fine for a while. Time hurts - but doesn't kill - most of them.
- Pale Hoppy non-IPAs: So, American Pale Ales, American wheat beers, etc. They don't have as much hop character to trade off as time goes by, but at the same time they tend to taste just fine without it since they're often a bit lower in alcohol and darker/richer malts, so the worst case is that you end up with a generically grainy beer. Most will hold up just find for a couple of months.
- Light Belgians: Saison, Witbier and the like have some great survivability, in part because there's so much going on in their flavor profiles. You have hops, esters, grain, and even if there's a slight infection a bit of tartness/acidity isn't really a deal-breaker. At our homebrew club's 100th meeting we popped open an eight-year-old Saison that was our first group brew, and it was still pretty good! Long story short, even though their flavors will change over time, it doesn't seem to devolve into something that's unpleasant to drink. But since they're a little lower in alcohol than their Belgian Strong cousins, they're a little more time-sensitive since their oxidation will just taste papery/metallic, not that cool sherry note you get in stronger beers that oxidize.
- Everything Else: Most other non-strong beers (I'm thinking of hoppy browns, stouts, sours, German wheats, etc.) keep and drink pretty well, even with some significant age on them. German Hefe, even old and stale, is still perfectly drinkable. A hoppy brown ale will probably have enough residual roast to keep it from being cloying. Pilsner will always work as a simple light malt showcase even if its hops fade. You can save these for last.
Drink with a Purpose
In a perfect world, we'd always drink what we want, when we want it, and it would always be in great shape. That's never going to happen, though - so set yourself up for success and give your beer its best shot at making you happy. Make your beer choices with a purpose.
And as one final tip? Go the "Wedding Feast at Cana" route - if folks are already a little tipsy (you included), drink the beers that aren't doing so hot. You'll mind it a lot less.
Keep it simple.