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How to Cellar Beer

If you have been involved in the craft beer community for any length of time, I’m sure you have seen or heard of someone bragging about enjoying a 2008 vintage of an extremely limited-release Barleywine. Maybe you’ve seen a post on social media of someone showing off a 15-year-old Russian Imperial Stout. You may be wondering, “Can that beer really be as good or better than it was when you bought it?” With the help of a beer cellar, the answer is yes. With proper storage and maintenance in a beer cellar, that vintage bottle of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine will mature and change within its bottle in fascinating ways. In this article, I’ll explain how to cellar beer, why any true beer connoisseur should have a cellar and the effects cellaring has on different beer styles.

A good beer cellar does not have to be fancy. Key factors include maintaining a steady temperature, restricting the amount of light that can reach the beer and having ample storage space for the beers you want to age. If your cellar doesn’t meet these requirements, you could end up with an oxidized, light-struck mess that will leave you severely disappointed after all that time you put into aging expensive limited releases or white whale one-offs.

Temperature is the first, and probably most difficult, hurdle to address. A quality beer cellar will be able to hold a steady temperature that is cooler than standard room temperature. Different beers tend to age best at different temperatures. For example, darker and high alcohol beers like Barleywines and Russian Imperial Stouts age best at temperatures in the 50°-60°F range (10°-15°C), while sour and wild beers tend to do better in the 45°-50°F (7°-10°C) range. Most people choose to cellar in that middle range to hit the best of both worlds and try to maintain a 50°F (10°C) temperature at all times.

Most basements have a cool corner tucked away that would make a good spot for a beer cellar. If you must, you can install a small air conditioning unit in an enclosed area to maintain that cooler temperature. Refrigerators may at first sound like an ideal place to cellar beer, as they will easily keep the beer cool and provide minimal light exposure. The reality is refrigerators are not ideal for long-term storage because they are designed to pull away moisture and can lead to drying out corks. You are much better off storing those beers on shelving in a cool area and reserving that fridge for the short-term storage of beers you are serving.

The next consideration in creating a good beer cellar is light exposure: Make sure your beer cellar is not near a window or fluorescent light. Maintaining a dark environment so that your beer does not become light-struck, or “skunked,” is paramount. Even beer in brown bottles can become light-struck when being aged for long periods. Brown bottles do provide more protection than green or clear, but even a brown bottle exposed to years of light will become light-struck. Light in the ultraviolet spectrum, from either sunlight or fluorescent lighting, will react with the iso-humulones from the hops, cleaving the molecule into a sulfur-like compound that smells faintly like a skunk.

Maintaining a dark environment in your cellar so that beer does not become light-struck or “skunked” is paramount.

Third is having ample storage for your beer, and I don’t just mean having enough shelf space to store the hundreds of beers you will accumulate as your hoarding cellaring begins – vertical space is almost extremely important. A common misconception is that beer should be cellared on its side, particularly corked beers, because wine is cellared on its side. But there has been no evidence that laying beer on its side to store is beneficial. In fact, it does more harm than good. Cellaring beer on its side exposes the beer to oxidation because of increased surface area exposure as the beer bottle or can lays flat. With wine, you want some of that oxidation to occur, and long ago, corks would dry out a lot faster than they do today. Wines are still aged on their side, but beer should be stored upright.

You also want to have ample shelf space for the number of bottles you plan to cellar, as it’s much easier to store the beers in an organized manner with the right amount of space. You can separate your collection by ABV, by beer style or by brewery. Trust me when I say there should be a method to your madness – organizing your cellar will help you plan out tastings in the future and allow you to see exactly what you have on hand – or what beer styles you should focus on obtaining.

The final component that goes into a good beer cellar is humidity control, with the ideal humidity range clocking in between 50 and 70 percent. Realistically, this may be the least critical aspect of a good beer cellar, but it can make a difference. Mold growth on the cap or cork could be an issue if you are letting beer sit for 5+ years in a dark and damp environment, so investing in a dehumidifying device might make sense for your cellar. Don’t get too aggressive because you don’t want to prematurely dry any corks out but rather inhibit mold growth on or near your bottles. The level of humidity varies from basement to basement, so placing something like DampRid on one of the shelves may be a better solution than obtaining a dehumidifier. On the other hand, if you live in an overly dry climate like in the desert states, you may need to go the opposite direction and be sure you have enough humidity to prevent the corks from drying out excessively.

Aside from the conditions, another factor to consider is what you want to accomplish. Are you looking to taste the subtle differences in a beer after a specific amount of time, or are you looking to age something for years and open it for a special occasion? For the first scenario, you can age just about any beer for a year or more just to test the differences that time and oxidation yield. You can test how the beer changes as flavors mellow or intensify. But in the latter case, you want to choose something you know will be stable for an extended period of time, so you want to choose a higher-alcohol style or sour beer for that purpose.

Organizing your cellar will help you plan out tastings in the future and allow you to see exactly what you have on hand – or what beer styles you should focus on obtaining.

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