This is a subject that comes up in many of the tours I conduct here at Weyerbacher. I attempt to address it as time allows but it is a subject I believe worthy of significant attention. I’m not a pro at this, either. This is simply an account of what I do in my own personal cellar. I invite and encourage you to add your thoughts, comments, and advice in the comments section below. This is intended to be a living document and something the novice beer collector can use as a resource point. Perhaps we can all learn best practices from one another!
Remember: these are tips and details aimed at maximizing the consistency and longevity of your long-term storage collection (generally speaking).
What can be cellared?
This is all a matter of personal taste however higher-alcohol malty beers are the best to cellar. Belgian quadrupels and some triples, barleywines, lambics, stouts are all ideal candidates. Most hoppy beers don’t cellar well. They just aren’t intended to do so. Hoppy beers are intended to have a pronounced citrus, piney or floral nose about them and a finite bitterness with all sorts of wonderful flavors which come along for the ride. These traits all start to fade the moment a hoppy beer is bottled or kegged. The fresher your hoppy beer is, the more it will taste the way the brewer intended it. There is a certain IPA from Delaware that does cellar really well but to be clear, it is the exception, not the rule. :^) Oxidation will happen, there is no way around it. Geeks can read an awesome article about oxidation here.
The term ‘lay some beer down’ is a misnomer. For beer it really means to simply set some aside. ’Lay down’ is a wine term; ageing wine requires one to physically lay the bottle on its side. For beer (and Champagne), it’s always best to store it right-side up for lots of reasons among which are these:
- There is generally more sediment in beer than wine and storing it vertically allows the sediment to gather on the bottom so when poured, it remains in the bottle. Note: some people prefer to rouse the sediment and drink it all anyway. I am one of those people however I only do it in the last inch of beer in the bottle and I will ‘charge’ my last glass of beer with that thicker mixture so I can taste the beer both ways.
- The caps we use here are ‘oxygen scrubbing’ and can assist in the longevity of the beer if stored vertically. Storing a pressurized bottle (especially a corked and caged one) is better vertically as the tiny amount of air that can and does get into the bottle (something like 1 part per billion per day even with oxygen scrubbing caps) will generally sit ABOVE the CO2 bed inside the airspace. CO2 is heavier than ‘air’, creating a zone of more inert gas within the bottle to protect the beer. Don’t get me wrong, gasses do mix even when sitting still- just picture the surface area of beer to air in a vertical and a horizontal position. The horizontal position draws out the air into a long and thin space and hugely increases the surface area of beer to air. You want the airspace compacted horizontally so the air can stratify vertically above the smallest possible surface area of beer.
- If laid on its side, some corked bottles of beer may allow seepage between the cork and the bottle, effectively gluing the cork in place. This adds extra and unnecessary drama when attempting to remove the cork.
- With regard to the steel ‘crowns’ (read: caps), they will rust over time with prolonged contact to the beer so it is better to keep beer and cap apart by storing the bottle vertically.
Proper Cellaring Environment
Get a cave. No? Get a giant walk-in cooler. Can’t afford that? Oh, you’re normal. Read on!
- Age the beer in an area with consistent, cool(er) temperature. Not available? Everyone has a coat closet. Stick it somewhere like that.
- Age the beer vertically (except for lambics bottled relatively still and with a press-fit cork and a metal cap. Example: Cantillon).
- Age the beer in a dark environment – and it is best to keep it in its box.
Things to AVOID like cheap fizzy yellow beer or the plague (not sure which is worse):
- Heat = bad. Cooking your beer isn’t ideal for ageing. Your car trunk or interior in the summer while you stop at the store on the way home from the brewery or retail store can superheat your freshly purchased beer. This is BAD for the longevity of the beer. If you intend to drink it soon, it is not as big a deal but the longer it is exposed to heat, the worse the beer will be effected. So, an IPA that gets a good cooking will be like an older IPA which we all know isn’t very yummy.
- Frequent temperature fluctuations will decrease the life of your cellar-able beer.
- Light affects the hop oils and proteins and creates what people call ‘skunked’ beer which is actually ‘light-struck’ beer. Keep it dark! It literally only takes about 5 minutes of UV light from indoor florescent bulb or the sun to kill that beer (from a cellaring perspective, anyway). Beware the florescent-lit refrigerated case at your local store!
- Gravity (secure your bottles and tape your boxes if they’re weak).
- Keep a sharpie and a roll of painter’s tape in the cellar area. Label the date or just the year on each beer entering the cellar. Some beers, like our Insanity, age really well but may have only been dated on the outer box so once the box is open and the beer moves around a little, it can get confused with other vintages. We now date code our beers (bottles-on and freshest-by) around the neck however things happen and a bottle could be missed leaving it undated.
- Always keep a few 4 packs and 6 packs (empty) near the cellar so it is easy to transport more than one bottle while not accidentally getting a case of the “a-few-beers-in dropsies”.
- If you have an unfinished stone or concrete basement which is largely NOT air conditioned or heated and is simply ‘ambient’, this is an ideal place to put your cellar. Make sure that the room is weather-tight. If you have a finished modern basement, these rooms are almost as warm or as cool as the rest of the house so be smart about it – don’t put the collection near the furnace or a Bilco door – put it in a closet somewhere that (ideally) has an exposed concrete wall in it to help regulate the temperature in that closet. Beware the sump pump closet though… it’s humid in there and the cardboard can mold or break down or let loose at the glued seams.
- You can refrigerate a beer and then return it to room temperature without skunking it. It’s simply not ideal for stuff you want to age indefinitely. Skunking is a function of light, not refrigeration.
- Freeze – There are varying schools of thought on this subject. My personal school says to avoid it (for consistency’s sake). Common sense suggests that it isn’t ideal for your collection because you put the glass, can, cap or cork at risk of failing. Freezing can happen and if it does, all hope is not lost. Google the subject – the responses run the gamut. Some beers (like Eisbock) are made specifically by freezing and removing the water from the beer to concentrate the beer.
Hopefully you will find these pointers useful for your collection. If you have any questions and don’t want to post them in the comments, click the ‘Contact Us’ tab up above and shoot me a message! I’ll add the content to the comments below if it’s useful for the content of this post.