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Coming of Age: The Nuances of Cellaring Beer

Coming of Age: The Nuances of Cellaring Beer

A somewhat disorganized, novice beer enthusiast discovers a six-pack of pale ale and a four-pack of imperial stout tucked away in the very back of his pantry. Realizing these brews were probably purchased more than two years ago, he decides to crack open a bottle of each on a whim. While the pale ale tastes like dull, stale hops and wet cardboard, the imperial stout offers up surprisingly pleasant, smooth aromas and flavors of chocolate, toffee and dark fruit intermingled with mild sherry notes. Why is that? Cellaring beer is the answer.

How is it that age can be so cruel to one style of beer and so forgiving to another? What environmental factors influence beer aging? What type of experimentation can be done to witness the effects of father time on a variety of brands and styles? Is setting up a cellar to age beer really worth the effort?

Let's ‘Wine’ a Little
It’s common knowledge that most wines benefit from age. Wine's lofty alcohol content, high acidity and stabilization by sulfite additives translate into a beverage that develops beautifully over months or years in the bottle. Anchor Brewing founder Fritz Maytag once said, "Wines should be aged in one barrel and then transferred to another for a few months – and even after the wine is bottled, you probably shouldn't drink it for another two years. Beer is simpler. You brew it and drink it. It's very delicate."

Most beers are ephemeral beverages that change tremendously over time and do not respond well to age. Most bottled beers produced by modern brewers taste best as soon as they hit the shelves of the tasting room, pub or retail store and do not improve at all with cellaring.

Time is Usually the Enemy
Crisp, citrusy, spicy hop bouquet and flavor in beer grow fainter with just a few weeks of age. Clean malt notes begin to transform into caramel, toffee, wine, sherry, honey, raisin, leather and nut nuances, and chemical reactions involving oxygen produce compounds in beer reminiscent of wet paper, cardboard, metal and mold. Sweet aromas increase, and fresh, fruity esters diminish.

Brown ales, stouts and porters with a substantial percentage of chocolate malt and roasted grains tend to age with their rich, dark malt aromas evolving into a sweeter, sherry-like character. Although this makes the beer quite different from what the brewer intended originally, many connoisseurs find this gradual change interesting and enticing.

cellaring beer

Chris Lively maintains a collection of rare Belgian lambic vintages at Ebenezer’s Pub.

From Strength to Strength
The simplest rule of thumb for choosing which beers may evolve in pleasing ways while cellaring involves alcohol content. Typically, any strong ale around eight percent alcohol by volume, or ABV, may benefit from aging for a year or so. Selections over 10 percent ABV may sometimes be aged for years with quite appealing results.

High-gravity barleywines, Belgian strong dark ales, imperial stouts, old ales, strong Scotch ales and the like often need a period of proper cellaring to mellow the rough flavors of youth and soften the harsh, overly warming alcohol notes. For example, a fresh bottle of complex, potent Westvleteren 12 purchased at the cafe across the street from the Belgian Trappist abbey where it is brewed will be intensely spicy, slightly astringent and quite "hot" from the alcohol bite. After resting in a cool cellar for a year, the ale takes on a softer, more refined balance and complexity, and drinkability increases noticeably.

The Weak Shall Not Inherit the Cellar
Beers below the six to seven percent ABV range seldom make good candidates for any aging at all, with remarkable exceptions being sour Belgian-style lambics, gueuze, Flemish red ales and sour browns. Oxidative character tends to complement these brews low in alcohol and high in acid. Chris Lively of Ebenezer's Pub in Maine loves to show off his rare bottles of vintage Belgian lambics from the 1970’s and 1980’s that hold proud shelf space in his cellar. One look at the considerable lambic stockpiles housed in the multiple beer cellars of the delightful De Heeren van Liedekercke beer cuisine restaurant near Brussels also demonstrates the popularity of sour ales that have seen a few years.

Age is not kind to most lagers. The hallmark of an exceptional lager involves a clean malt profile lacking in fruity esters and ale complexity. This delicate, fresh personality becomes dull and muddled even with just a few weeks or months of shelf time. Rich, powerful doppelbocks and eisbocks often show a touch of rounding and mellowing with a few weeks or months of age, but too much cellar time will even send these strong beers "over the edge" with undesirable notes of sherry, overripe fruit and earthiness.

Embracing Change
Experimenting with how different beers change over time and take on new aromas and flavors can be quite interesting. Cask-conditioned ales demonstrate this process in a compressed timeframe. Real cask ales in a pub in the U.K. are usually housed in cellars that hold temperatures in the 50 to 55 degree Fahrenheit range. As the bartender draws the ale into a pint glass, air replaces the lost volume of beer in the cask. As the cask is drained over two days or so, rapid and remarkable oxidative changes take place in the beer. Die-hard lovers of living, real, English cask ale stand by the opinion that this accelerated evolution of a cask over its serving life makes up a great deal of the charm and intrigue of classic English ale. After the tapping of a new cask at the pub, many patrons head back on the following night to see how the ale has “come along.”

Bottled beers evolve more leisurely over several weeks or months, and this process slows with cooler temperatures and speeds up in warmer extremes. Environments in the range of 50 to 65 degrees actually form the ideal temperature range for storing most beers. Too cold, and changes in the beer will slow dramatically; too warm, and oxidation kicks into high gear. Stability in temperature also seems important – avoid rapid fluctuations when cellaring beer. A closet that keeps a stable 70 degrees is much more desirable for a stash of vintage ale than a garage that swings from 65 to 80 degrees in a day. Locations much above 70 degrees are not the best choice for long term beer storage.

Proper Environs
Anyone who has ever tasted a lager from a green or clear bottle that's been exposed to light knows the vile aroma and flavor that comes from ultraviolet light's ability to convert certain hop compounds into the exact chemical found in the scent glands of a skunk. Brown bottles protect beer much better, but all beer should be stored out of direct light. If bottles are aged on shelves, be sure that the location is cool and not exposed to strong light from windows or high wattage bulbs. Keeping prized cellar ales sealed away in cardboard boxes works just as well.

Beer storage areas should also hold only moderate levels of humidity. A dehumidifier will prevent caps from rusting and mold from forming on labels, but some level of humidity seems important to keep beer corks from drying out and losing integrity. Refrigerators remove humidity and do not make the best option for long-term storage of corked beer.

Persons living in hot climates without a cool space in their homes may resort to using a refrigerator as a make-shift beer cellar, and a refrigerator thermostat (used by homebrewers to lager fermenting beer) makes an effective tool at holding the fridge around 55 degrees. Because of the low humidity inside the fridge, bottles with corks should perhaps be stored on their sides.

Most dark, cool basements usually make very acceptable locales for beer cellaring. Sturdy, stable shelving prevents accidents and breakage, and adequate floor space for storing case boxes also helps. Try to stack well-labeled beer boxes on top of a pallet or other non-porous platform on the floor to avoid water damage in case the basement floor becomes damp from leaky pipes or a defective hot water heater.

cellaring beer

Dave Blanchard inside the Brick Store’s bank vault of cellared beers.

Cork and Bottle
Research actually indicates that corked beers usually do best when stored upright. The humidity in the airspace of the bottle generally works well in keeping the cork moist and tight for many years, and long-term contact of beer with the cork may sometimes lead to off-flavors. The majority of corked beers come with a layer of yeast sediment in the bottom of the bottle, so keeping the bottle upright ensures that the sediment remains at the base – making pouring the beer without disturbing the yeast layer a bit easier. Perhaps storing a few bottles of a corked beer upright and comparing these to ones stored on their sides for an equal amount of time might constitute a worthy experiment. In any case, beers with bottle caps should always be stored in vertical position.

Bottled-conditioned beers get their carbonation from living yeast cells in the bottle consuming small amounts of residual or added sugar and releasing carbon dioxide gas that dissolves into the beer. After a time, the yeast settles to the bottom of the bottle, forming the aforementioned thin layer of sediment. For years it was thought that the presence of this yeast layer somehow made bottle-conditioned beers lack the shelf life of filtered, pasteurized beers. Contemporary research indicates that the opposite seems true – the industrious, living yeast cells continue to slowly metabolize oxygen and other potentially harmful compounds in the bottle and assist in stabilizing the beer and extending its shelf life. Therefore, bottle-conditioned strong ales tend to make brilliant candidates for cellaring.

Get Organized!
Organization and record keeping are important. Come up with a cellar plan to make finding a certain style or vintage of beer easy, and think about keeping older beers toward the front of the shelf with newer additions of the same brand going toward the back. After all, the older beers should usually be consumed before new arrivals are uncapped. Super-serious beer cellar owners also maintain record books or computer files to keep track of precious stockpiles.

Budget permitting, always try to buy enough bottles of a beer brand to sample one from the cellar every couple of months or so. Remarkable differences will often be noted, and this process tends to ease the pain of impatient beer lovers. Keeping a record of aroma and flavor changes over time aids in figuring out a beer’s optimum cellar life, and this information is advantageous in storing and drinking the next year's vintage. However, it’s important to understand that due to slight differences in malts, hops and yeasts from year to year, not all vintages of a beer will age and mature at the same rate and follow identical courses of flavor changes. Just because that 2009 barleywine tasted best after eight months, don't make the concrete assumption that the 2011 version will follow suit.

Vertical tastings form one of the most enjoyable aspects of aging beer. When at least three or four consecutive years of the same strong ale are housed in the cellar, grab a bottle of each to pour into labeled tasting glasses and discuss with friends the differences in color, aroma and flavor profiles. Keep records of which vintages earn the best comments.

Pubs Cash In
Beer cellaring often translates into big bucks for purveyors of craft beer in bars, pubs and restaurants. Dave Blanchard, Tom Moore and Mike Gallagher, owners of the famed Brick Store in Decatur Georgia, marveled at vintage beer menus in the best pubs in Belgium and decided to give beer cellaring a go back home. They leased the basement of the old bank building next door (complete with huge vault doors) and began to stock it with hundreds of cases of beers that seemed worthy of “sitting on” for a few years. Upon initial release, the Brick Store's vintage beer menu became so popular that prices had to be increased to prevent the dated brews from flying off the shelves too quickly.

When traveling, be sure to explore the tantalizing vintage lists at other mind-blowing U.S. pubs such as La Cave Du Vin in Cleveland Heights, Ohio; Ebenezer's Pub in Lovell, Maine; The Farmhouse in Emmaus, Pennsylvania; Huntsville's The Nook; Orlando's Redlight, Redlight; The Thirsty Monk in Asheville; Stone's World Bistro in San Diego; and Baltimore's Max’s Taphouse.

Whether experiencing the astounding layers of complexity of a Belgian ale from the vintage menu at a fine craft beer bar, or pulling another bottle of a mellowing barleywine from a case in the basement, the art of cellaring beer offers delightful experiences, discoveries, flavors and revelations. Patience does have its rewards.