Nick Carr on December 16, 2015 0 Comments Too long has wine been the champion of the cellar. It grows great in its age while craft beer is left to the fleeting life of the axiom “Best when Fresh.” There is some truth in these words but it shouldn’t be a blanket statement spouted to cover the whole spectrum of beer styles. All craft beer is worth drinking young, but contrary to what many people may think, like wine, some beer styles do retain, even grow in complexity, becoming more nuanced in their beauty as they age. A well crafted beer does not actually spoil. It will not go bad in the sense that it’s going to hurt you in any way. Or at least your taste buds will probably let you know something’s wrong long before it approaches the realms of even giving you a slight belly ache. So, don’t be afraid to try old beer. One sips, not gonna kill you and you might find a character vastly different, and more agreeable than when the beer was young. There is no exact science to how beer should be aged, what styles are up to taking on some extra years, or what exactly is going to happen as it ages. It’s all a wonderful experiment and you need to approach it as such. This article is a guideline, nothing more, especially when I start pointing out what makes a beer worth cellaring. So, take it for what it’s worth, but don’t be afraid to run contrary to it if a worthy case can be made for a certain beer. The Place Before you can even consider cellaring beer long-term you need to find or create a place with the right conditions. These conditions include temperature, humidity, light levels, consistency, and space. 1. Keep it Cool Click Here to View All Beverage Refrigerators You want to store you’re beer in a cool place with little temperature variation. The standard cellaring temperature range is between 50° and 55° Fahrenheit, but some collectors like to store the beer even colder, down to around 45°F. This will slow oxidation to some extent. Between 50° and 55°F is great, if you can go a little lower have at it. Of course, storing at this low a temperature is only really feasible if you happen to have an extra refrigerator. It’s common for beer enthusiasts to use a smaller beer fridge for this task, as they don’t cost much, are small enough to stay out of the way and are easy to set at your desired temperature. Just don’t forget about serving temperature too; if you’re storing cold you may have to let it warm up before serving it. 2. Darkness, A Beer’s Best Friend Like a vampire, beer reacts badly to light. A photochemical reaction takes place when light hits beer. The alpha acids that make the beer bitter breakdown forming “skunky” off flavors. It’s easily one of the most common reasons why your beer goes bad. So, store your prized beer in darkness. If you have a beverage fridge that has a glass door, make sure the glass blocks out UV rays. There are many UV window films available online that you can apply to the glass door to help protect your beer. 3. The Boring Life As with brewing, consistency is key for a beer to age well. Think of your beer as that person that doesn’t handle sudden changes in their life well. All the other factors I’ve already spoken of should remain as consistent as possible for the life of the beer. You don’t want large or sudden temperature fluctuations. You don’t want to move, agitate, or change the position of your bottles anymore then absolutely necessary. You don’t want to expose them to long interludes of light if you can help it. Think of it this way — a boring life makes for good beer. 4. Room To Stand There’s been a lot of back and forth about whether beer should be stored horizontal or vertical. Arguments have been made for both cases. Wine, invariably, is stored lying down so that the cork stays moist and does not shrink. This is also the main reason people use to store corked beer horizontally. But the reasons to store your beer standing, in my opinion, far outweigh this single possibly positive horizontal one. First, laying beer on its side does not allow any sediment, left in the bottle, to settle. It will remain suspended, perhaps forming a yeast ring, and will “kick-up” when you pour. Second, there is a certain amount of humidity in the bottle and, if the storage area is within the right humidity range — see next point — the corks will be fine. Also, there is the possibility of picking up off flavors to long exposure to natural cork. Of course this one isn’t an issue if it’s a synthetic cork. Last, when beer is stored vertical, less of the liquid is exposed, slowing the oxidative process somewhat. So, store your beer standing. If you can’t — your storage space doesn’t accommodate it perhaps — or you just don’t want to for some reason. Before serving, it would be best to gently roll the bottle around a bit to get the sediment stirred up, then put it in the refrigerator for a while so that at least some of the sediment settles out. 5. Wet, But Not Too Wet Humidity, or lack of it, can both mean death to aging beer. Any natural corked bottles need a certain amount of humidity to keep the corks from drying out. If corks dry out, shrink, and crack oxygen will leak into the bottle, speeding up oxygenation. Oxygenation is part of the natural aging process of beer, but when extra oxygen is introduced, it’s like suddenly sentencing it to hard labor for the remainder of its life. It will age faster, die sooner, and the process won’t be as pretty. On the other hand, too high a humidity will breed molds which could find their way into your prized collection; tunneling through the porous wood of a cork or snuggling up under a deformed or loose cap. Ideally you want the humidity somewhere between 50 and 70 percent and if you are using a cellar or basement it isn’t a bad idea to get it checked for mold every so often. The Importance of the Cellar Conditions You can see from the above conditions why a cellar or basement might be a good storage choice. Temperatures below ground are usually cooler with smaller variations, and humidity is often easier to maintain. It’s also dark and the bottles are less likely to be disturbed. But, a cellar is not the only option. The above points are a set of ideals to strive for, but are not absolutes. Right now I store my beer in an unused kitchen cabinet. This obviously leaves lots to be desired, but I have no cellar and live in a rather small house at the moment. There is no other place, so I make due. Craft beer can be pretty forgiving. Light and temperature are the big ones, control them as much as you can, and you’ll do alright. The Beer Okay, you’ve got your cellaring location setup and you’re ready for your first costumer. It’s time to go beer shopping. But not all beer is created equal when it comes to the aging process. Some die young, and thus should be enjoyed while young; others handle the aging process much more maturely, only getting better with age. Below are a few general tips to choosing beer to cellar, but they are only tips, for most of them you could find at least one beer that runs contrary. Bottle Conditioned Bottle conditioned beer still has active yeast in the bottle which will continue to work on the beer, changing its flavors and enriching its complexities over time. Yeast will also slow down oxidation. High Alcohol Higher alcohol brews have some preservative protection. They also have a tendency to mellow out and become smoother with age. Generally a good cellaring ABV is 8% or higher. Dark and Malty Darker beers with a heavier malt profile have sweet qualities that will round and become more complex as they age. Lower IBUs Normally, hops don’t get better with time. Pale Ales, IPAs, and other heavily hopped beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. They are built around the sensory presence of hops, made to showcase the beauty of aroma/flavor/bitterness. This experience dies with age. But, again there are always those that defy the rules. In this case the one that comes to mind is Dogfish Head’s 120 minute IPA. Barrel Aged These beers already have some age on them and their time in the barrel creates complexities and nuances that can deepen or soften with time. Sours and Wilds Beer brewed with Lactobacillus bacteria, multiple yeast strains, and wild yeasts have the possibility of standing up to some aging. How they age can be pretty unpredictable though. Smoke Smoked beers gain a natural preservative through compounds in the smoke. The smoky elements also add a further quality to the beers complexity and it generally softens over time. Note: If you do intend to try aging beer that go crosswise to the above guidelines, such as highly hopped, low ABV, etc., consider storing these at lower temperatures. It will slow and mellow the aging process somewhat, something these beers’ seem to appreciate. Styles that generally age well Barleywines Imperial Stouts Imperial Porters Imperial Red Ales Strong Belgian Ales Baltic Porters Winter Warmers Old Ale Lambics Raunchier Flanders Red Scotch Ales Wee Heavy Oud Bruin Waking Those That Sleep So, how long do you let your pretty ones lie? Again, there really is no right answer here. Beer starts to change as soon as it’s left the brewery. Of course much of how it ages in its early life is out of your hands, but assuming everyone down the chain treats this new creation with the respect it deserves, it should come to you having only been slightly “used” by time. Beer meant for aging will show appreciable change in as little as two to three months and most aging beer will reach their sweet spot within several months to a few years, but there are some that can age nicely for decades. Being able to continually evaluate the beer is worth considering. If your budget can manage it buy several bottles. Taste is subjective and you need to create a baseline to measure any cellared bottles against. Drink one right away and if possible take some notes. Stash the other bottles and every two to three months pull one out, dust it off, and do another tasting. At some point the beer will reach the pinnacle of its aging arch. After this point it will start degrading, or at the very least, not get any better. It’s time to break open the stocks and enjoy what you have left. What Aging Brings Each beer responds differently to aging. Each has been brewed a specific way, with specific yeasts, specific practices, and a unique grain bill; so each will show their age differently. But generally, there are some changes that have been shown will happen over time. Bitterness will decrease. Ribes flavor (catty, or black current) will increase for a time then decrease. Cardboard (stale) flavors increase somewhat slowly. Banana and some other fruity esters decrease. Harshness and astringency caused by bitterness increases. Other esters associated with a wine-like (sherry/stale fruit) taste increase. Earthy character may deepen. Some cyclic esters, responsible for peachy, fruity flavors will increase. Sweet flavors and aromas increase. Leathery (burnt sugar, toffee, caramel) flavors and aromas increase. Floral/fresh flavors decrease. Darkening of color. To learn more about each of the above changes, I’d recommend you check out: “The Chemistry of Beer Aging- A Critical Review.“ Homebrewing: Creating For The Ages Just like collecting commercial beer to cellar and age the intrepid homebrewer may want to take a run at saving some of his creations long term -that is if you can stop drinking them. All beer needs a certain amount of time to mature, but in most cases this is measured in weeks and not years. Those best suited to longer aging will have the same above qualifications as commercial examples (robust malt bills, high ABV, low bittering, etc). If you have a robust recipe you really like, or one you’re making small adjustments to; it might be interesting to brew it once a year at least, squirreling away a few bottles each year. In this way, you could see how your beer changes over time. Maybe even pulling out three or four vintages for friends and — impressing them to no end no doubt — pulling off a vertical tasting of your own creation. Below is a short list of extract and all-grain ingredient kits with cellarable properties. Extract Oaked Imperial Stout Smoked Porter Belgian Ale Imperial Stout Belgian Trippel Belgian Dubbel All-Grain Imperial Stout Belgian Trippel Belgian Dubbel The Adventure, The Joy If you need some help getting started, take a look at the “Vertical Tasting List.” Any of these great beers would be a fine place to start. Cellaring can become a lifelong hobby. It’s an adventure of experimentation. Some beer will age wonderfully, others — not many hopefully — will be complete duds. But, it’ll be those moments, in the company of friends, when you pop the top on a beer aged for years, and share in something wonderfully new, complex, and nuanced…. that will keep you collecting beer and putting it to sleep, awaiting that summit of aged perfection. Cheers!