Cellaring and Aging Beer

Aging beer, what’s all this about?

2013-05-11 16.38.39Some beers are barrel-aged by the brewer. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the bottle-conditioned beers that are meant to either be enjoyed now, or stored away for later.

Just like wine, the flavors in beer will change over time. Hops lose their intensity, malts gain a richness, and yeast does all sorts of things in the bottle. In short, you age a beer to see what happens.

Years ago I was invited to my first bottle share event and brought with me the freshest double IPA I could find at the local store. Most of the other folks brought Belgian ales, imperial stouts, saisons, and barley wines. Some of the beers were a few years old and tasted almost like sherry. My hop bomb was a good palette cleanser between the other brews, but didn’t get nearly as much praise as the bottles with some age on them. I got to taste some fantastic beer that day and wanted to have something impressive for the next bottle share. That’s when I started cellaring beer.

Which beers age well?

2012 Fifty Fifty Eclipse - 10% abv barrel aged imperial stout

Certain styles of beer hold up better over time: imperial stouts, barley wines, Belgian strong ales, sours, etc. Basically we are looking for high ABV (alcohol by volume) brews. So what is considered high? Most sites say 10% abv and up are ideal for aging. I’ve had some 8% beers that aged quite well after a year in the cellar. I’ve also opened up a couple of bottles that were better when they were fresh. It’s a gamble, but hiding away a beer that “should” get better with age minimizes your risk. Be warned it can become an expensive hobby.

Which beers don’t age well?

Do not age IPAsAll beers will lose their hop profile as they age, so I avoid cellaring IPAs. Wheat ales and fruit beers can mellow out and become bland or even develop off-flavors past their “drink before” date. And low malt, high adjunct beers, (like your typical American macro-lagers) are not going to get more interesting over time.Typically the beers that are designed to drink fresh are going to be worse off after some time in the cellar. Low ABV beers have a hard time holding up to the test of time.

How to store your beer

The two biggest concerns with aging beer are light and heat. So you want to keep your beer in a dark place and keep temperature fluctuations to a minimum.

Light struck beers get that “skunky” flavor. So to avoid light I store my bottles upright in a brown paper bag placed inside a cardboard bottle box. Why upright? Sediment forms over time as the beer conditions in the bottle. If beers are stored on their side, that sediment layer isn’t compacted at the bottom and can end up being poured into your glass.

High temperatures can shorten the lifespan of you beer, so try to keep it cool. I store my boxes on the tile floor in the back of the closet in the center of my house where the temperature is a fairly constant 60°F. That’s on the high side of what’s recommended for a beer cellar, (50-60°F), but I haven’t had any issues so far. Higher alcohol by volume brews can withstand higher temperatures, but I try to avoid anything close to 70°F as that may wake the yeast and cause undesired aging results.

An old fridge in the garage with temp set to 55°F would be ideal. A wine fridge with upright storage could work nicely too. Just keep the glass door covered or away from direct sunlight. FYI: wine fridges usually are set around 55°F and food refrigerators typically run at 40°F or lower. If you plan on using a wine fridge, make sure you can store your bottles upright. If you are using a food fridge, you may want to get a Johnson Controller (or something similar) to regulate your temperature.

I haven’t opened up too many of my cellar bottles yet, but everything I have opened has done just fine using my 60°F concrete slab method.

When to drink from your cellar?

Parabola and SupplicationThat’s entirely up to you. I find it hard to keep stuff longer than a year or so before my greedy little hands pop the top. For many of the annually released beers, Like Firestone Walker Sucaba and Parabola, I will buy two bottles of the new release. One to cellar and the other to open up along side last years release. So my small collection gets rotated out fairly regularly. For other stuff, like the Russian River sours, (Supplication, Consecration, Sanctification, etc.) I rarely can find more than one, so I just throw the current release in the cellar and open up the oldest one.

I have a few exceptions in my cellar. I managed to save the Trader Joe’s Vintage Ales for the past 5 years, (2008 – 2012) and I also have the last 5 years of the Stone Vertical Epic series (08/08/08 – 12/12/12). So at some point I can host a vertical tasting and open them all up side by side.

All beers will change over time, some get better, some get worse. The important thing is to have fun. If you have any questions let me know in the comments or hit me up on Facebook.

Cheers to craftbeer,

Erik

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