Cellar? I Barely Knew Her!
With many seasonal beers being released that fit the bill for perfect cellaring (high in alcohol, high in malt, low in hops), now is a great time to start your own beer cellar if you haven’t already. You need nothing fancy—just a consistent space and a few beers to put in it. How crazy you get with the setup is up to you. Here are a few tips to help you along.
The area you use to cellar your beer has to have three characteristics: darkness, coolness and consistency.
Darkness: Light—whether it’s natural or artificial—is a great way to skunk your beer. Even putting the beer in an oft-used basement room where the light will be turned on and off can help in ruining your beer, so you’ll want to keep it in a corner or closet that gets very little light (and preferably none at all). If this isn’t an option, an old case should work just fine, as long as it’s big enough to cover the bottles—a wine box should be big enough for your bombers.
Coolness: Beer loves cool temperatures, and while there are various ranges, 50-55 F seems to be the agreed upon average. If you let your beer get too warm, it will shorten its shelf life. If you let the beer get too cold, it will get cloudy with “chill haze.”
Consistency: One of the best ways to ruin your beer and waste your cellaring efforts is to put it in a place with inconsistent light or temperature. Don’t put it in a corner with a vent that will heat up in the winter and cool down in the summer, or in a room where the lights will be going on and off constantly.
The best beers to cellar, as I briefly touched on at the beginning, are those with high alcohol (8% or higher), lots of malt, and little hops (the bittering oils from hops fade over time). These elements will work together over time to bring out a variety of flavors in the beer. You know how chili and soup always taste better after a day or two when the flavors all have time to mingle? Beer works that way, only with a more drawn out timeframe.
Lots of good winter beers coming out soon, like stouts and porters, will do well with a little cellaring. The imperial versions will work even better, and any variations like chocolate stouts and espresso porters will evolve over time as well. Also look for bottle conditioned ales—this means the yeast is left in the bottle to continue to ferment the beer. With the little guys still hanging around, much, much more will be able to develop over time. Barrel-aged beers are good, as well as sours and strong ales. Any kind of brewer’s reserve/vertical/yearly release will do well, as they brewer usually means for them to be held on to for a time and tasted with subsequent years’ versions. Some beers, like Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada’s collaborative Life and Limb, actually ask you to cellar if for a while before drinking.
Remember to buy at least two of every beer, one to taste now and one to age. There’s little use in tasting the changes in a beer if you don’t have anything to compare them to. You can certainly buy more if you like and age them different lengths to taste the changes each year.
What To Do?
Now that you’ve got the beer and the space, there are only a few things left to do. First, be sure to mark your bottles with the date you put them in your cellar. This will help avoid forgetting when the bottle was cellared and causing you to drink it too early or too late, therefore spoiling the time you waited for it.
Store your bottles upright. There are some who would argue to use the wine-storing method of laying the bottles on their sides, but BeerAdvocate has a list of convincing arguments against that. You can do it however you like, but it seems more and more people are opting to go with upright bottles.
Finally, don’t drink your beer. It’s hard once you get your hands on something like, say, a Dogfish Head 120 Minute or a rare Cantillon, but don’t give in! You will be greatly rewarded for your patience when the time comes.
Has anyone started a cellar recently or been cellaring beer for a while? Leave any tips and tricks—or horror stories—you’ve come across in the comments section.