Beer, like wine, can be aged. In some cases, beer cellaring, as its commonly called, can improve or otherwise dramatically change your beer.
As with wine, improving a beer with time requires certain conditions. Everything from the recipe of the beer itself to the conditions in which the liquid is stored come into play.
Beer cellaring has two basic needs: cold and dark. Beyond this, you’ll want to consider such factors as the style of the beer, its alcohol content, and how long you should keep it around for maximum enjoyment.
Here are the basics of how to cellar your beer, why different conditions yield different results, and what styles do best in the cellar.
Can’t Beat the Heat
The best case scenario is that you have a basement (e.g., cellar) in which to store your beer. For those of us living in apartments, cities, and in the South and West (we hear they don’t have basements, either), this is not the case.
When it comes to temperature, think about recreating the conditions of a cool, dark basement.
“Heat is the enemy,” writes Randy Mosher in his canonized book, “Tasting Beer.” He’s right: Beyond pasteurization, which many breweries do not employ, heat can ruin a beer in terms of aroma and flavor, as well as its chemical makeup.
This doesn’t necessarily mean your beer will be destroyed if it spends a few days out of the refrigerator; but with extended exposure to heat and light, or repeated spikes and drops in temperature, certain chemical reactions can occur that will degrade the beer’s flavor.
When it comes to temperature, think about recreating the conditions of a cool, dark basement. On top of your refrigerator, on a windowsill, or next to a radiator won’t do, as this will heat the beer. A consistent temperature between 55 and 65 degrees should be your aim. As Mosher mentions in his book, warmer weather in the summertime is not as problematic as temperature swings between hot and cold; although heat is not ideal, a steady warm environment is still better than repetitions of cold (in the refrigerated section of a store), hot (in your trunk), cold (in your fridge), and hot (on your porch) again.
To Age or Not to Age
Some beers are meant to be aged, and others are not. Lagers, for example, are fermented cold and already “conditioned” when you buy them. Sour beers, on the other hand, along with imperial stouts, Belgian dubbels, Belgian tripels, and strong ales, plus many barrel-aged beers, do great with age.
The best beers to age are those that are bottle-conditioned, higher in alcohol content (7 percent ABV or above), or sour. That last category can take on a variety of flavors and complexities, despite being lower in alcohol.
Sour beers, along with imperial stouts, Belgian dubbels, Belgian tripels, strong ales, and many barrel-aged beers, do great with age.
Bottle conditioning does well for beer aging because the yeast that’s in the bottle is still alive and active. It will chomp on extra sugars, spitting out more alcohol as well as more complex flavors in its esters, many of which will be perceived as fruitiness when you do pop it open to taste.
A beer with higher alcohol content and a big malt backbone is typically heartier and richer, and thus can hold up to heat and age much better than something like a hoppy session ale or IPA. This is why you’ll often see “verticals” of imperial stouts, or beer nerds clamoring for different vintages of big beers like Goose Island Bourbon County brand stouts and barleywines.
Sour beers are a bit of an exception to the high ABV rule: Their unique yeasts and microflora, often introduced by fruit and wild fermentation, continue to evolve for long periods of time, even many years. This makes styles like lambics ideal for aging. (In fact, many lambics have already been aged for several years before being sold.)
“Celebration” beers, or Christmas ales, are also good contenders for cellaring, and are particularly well suited for annual collection and comparison.
How to Store a Beer
Along with temperature, it’s important to consider a beer’s positioning in its “cellar” — even if that’s just your basement floor. The familiar image of the “wine cellar,” where bottles are stored in neat rows on their sides, is not always the best for aging beer. If the beer has a cork like a wine bottle, then it should do well on its side, yes, particularly if you are planning to age it for several months. This prevents the cork from drying out, and in the case of beer especially, prevents carbonation from escaping. However, any beer with an aluminum cap is best stored upright, as it would in your fridge.
What Happens to a Beer When it Ages
How a beer changes as it ages depends on its style. In some cases, a beer that’s aged will dry out and become more complex, with more yeast-driven flavors expressing themselves over time. This can be true with Belgian dubbels, which will lose some sweetness, and beers fermented with brettanomyces yeast, which will produce more funky flavors over time.
Consider your cellar an experiment, a learning experience, and keep trying new (and old) comparisons to truly unlock beer’s aging potential.
Sour beers tend to get more sour (or at least, more acidic), and stouts tend to get more sweet and viscous, like thick, velvety syrup. The latter can be considered a “good” form of oxidation — the beer will become rich and fruity, like sherry — or, pushed too far, meaty and umami, like soy sauce.
Whatever the result, consider your cellar an experiment and a learning experience, and keep trying new (and old) comparisons to truly unlock beer’s aging potential.
Beer Aging Guide
Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer” provides a helpful aging time chart for a few “ageable” beer styles:
|English or American strong/old ale||7-9%||1-5|
|Belgian strong dark ales||8.5-11%||2-12|
|Imperial pale/brown/red, etc.||7.5-10%||1-7|