My impression is that ales are typically best drunk within a couple weeks of brew day. It's my experience that letting them age in the bottles for 2-3 months yields the best beer, both improving body, head, and desirable flavours, and reducing estery flavours. Could there be something I'm doing wrong to make the beer mature too slowly?
You are doing absolutely nothing wrong. Many people are far too quick to drink their precious homebrew and most beers benefit a lot from aging. A few months for ales and simple lagers.
Beers with a high ABV should be aged much longer. I make a Chimay Grand Cru clone that I typically don't try for 4-6 months. Aging remove a lot of the "hot" taste from high alcohol beers and mellows them.
I think all of the BS from the megalager companies (Miller, Bud, etc) about "fresh beer" have given people the impression that a three week old beer is ready. Oh, you can drink it. It's just not at its best. I let bog-standard 5% ABV ales go at least six weeks before drinking. 1-2-3 Method.
Beer is about patience and many folks don't know how good their beer could be with a few extra weeks in a cool, dark cellar or closet. Mind you, I am not advocating you let a 5% Wit age for a year. It will lose a lot. But a month or two after bottling (or kegging) is a good idea. Rule of thumb is for me, the higher the ABV, the longer the aging.
Follow your instincts, Nick. You've discovered one of the most easily overlooked secrets of homebrewing all on your own. Kudos.
There could be a few things going on:
- High Alcohols can improve in flavor after some time in cool, dark storage
- Sediment can drop out of beer after long, cool storage leading to better head formation and retention (since the sediment is no longer there to form a big nucleation site)
- Yeast in the beer, if still active, could be cleaning up some byproducts they didn't get to during fermentation.
There's a common homebrewing joke that the best beer in a batch is the last remaining bottle. And it's somewhat true -- yes, you can drink that beer just a week or two after bottling, but if kept in a cool, dark place the beer should continue to develop (and hopefully improve) for quite a while.
Not all beer matures at the same rate, and not all beer drinkers have the same tastes. For some examples, I like to drink really hoppy beers while they're fairly young and the hops are still vibrant. An altbier I'll cold condition for a couple months. Something like a tripel I prefer with maybe a month or 2 of age on it. The best thing to do is experiment to find out how YOU like your beers.
I mature my bottle conditioned ales for as long as possible. The longest so far is 168 weeks or 3.2 years for one of my Barley Wines. The key changes are Hoppyness mellows with age and Malts go through a long series of changes resulting in a sort of licorice taste. I think the way malt changes over time is wonderful. Remember your beers won't go off if you; use clean dry bottles, plenty hops(antixoidising and sterilising), alcohol (kills bacteria and virus's), CO2 is acidic and prevents bacteria from entering the bootles and keeps any already in the beer dormant. With all this going for you try making more beer to allow some to mature and some to drink.
You are doing nothing wrong at all. That is the beer, that is the culture, that is the code. It simply takes time. On Christmas day I have drunk my first imperial pilsner - it was stored for 1 year and the taste was delicious! The body was so smooth and great, nice head. One of the best beers from my production I have ever drunk. You just have to be patient and have some bottles for "sample tastes" - taste them after month, two, three and you will know when is the best time to drink it or give it to friends.
All big industry breweries are bottling it after 2-3 weeks after brewing, so no surprise it tastes like crap.
Give it a time and you will be surprised how sometimes potentially bad beer can become one of the best after some time.
However some beer styles needs to be drank fresh - witbier, weizen, some pale ales.
My first batch (if you ignore my efforts some 30 years ago) was put down in Nov 2011 and bottled in Dec; it consisted of a Cooper's Pale Ale + another 2 lbs of LME. The aroma during bottling was quite promising, but the first bottle sampled some 7-10 days later was... disappointing. But, I did tell myself to keep expectations low. Friends told me it was pretty good, so maybe I was just being too critical.
I had another bottle of it last night, and it definitely seemed nicer, which has been the general trend of impressions (myself, my wife, my friends) since that first bottle. That's about 5 weeks in the bottle.
Also check out this link; scroll down to the discussion under Maturing. Perhaps an extreme example, but helpful nonetheless: http://homebrewandbeer.com/howtobrew.html
That said, I've read that if you go the keggle route, the "best before" date seems to be 60 days after kegging. I'm unclear as to why this is.