Monday, March 17, 2014

Beer Archeology 101: Building a Beer Cellar.

Cellaring Beer?

Most folks I know buy (or brew their own) beer for immediate consumption.  In most cases, this is how beer is meant to be consumed: fresh!  Commercial breweries want their beer to reach the consumer as fresh as possible and in perfect drinking condition.  They do not want these beers (especially lower gravity or hoppy ones) to lose their mojo by sitting around too long thereby giving the brewery a bad reputation.  However, some beers actually do improve or change with aging.  This entry is my attempt at covering the concept.

In about 2006 one of my friends, Brett Schneider, opened my eyes to the then novel idea of cellaring beers.  Prior to that I had really not given much thought to keeping beer around longer than it took me to drink it.  For a special Holiday brewclub event (back when Jack Of All Brews only had about 8 members) Brett brought out a bunch of old Sierra Nevada Bigfoot bottles.  I think Dave Manley may have contributed some as well, but I make things up sometimes.  With each bottle sporting a year of birth in bright blue on its base white cap, it was easy to organize this tasting sequentially.  I think we went from newest to oldest in order to see how the fresh beer tasted and then monitor the change over time by reaching farther back in years.  The newest at the time was 2006 and the oldest was 1995.  My mind was blown by this vertical tasting of one beer!  The fresh one was so hoppy and bitter that I found it nearly undrinkable.  But as we went back in time the hops mellowed.  The beers became more balanced and complex.  And eventually we reached the stage where oxidation no longer helped the taste, but hindered them instead, resulting in cardboard and muddy flavors.   There was also some variation year to year that could have been due to particular vintages or just storage conditions in the interim.  Eyes opened, I began my own beer cellar that month with a six pack of Bigfoot. 

Not my cellar...this one is Belgium!

Aging Beers

What beers age well you ask?  In general, many of the higher alcohol beers (8% ABV or higher) will age better than lower gravity beers.  Hops tend to fade fast in beers, so pale ales, IPAs and double IPAs do not typically hold up well.  Here are some guidelines for what beers age the best.

1) Barleywines seem to be ageable, but those hop flavors will fade and change with time.  If you love the fresh hop craziness of American barleywines, you may not want to age them, as you could be disappointed with the process.  As mentioned above, Bigfoot ages remarkably well, but there is a huge difference between the mouth rending bitterness of a fresh one versus the sherry-like smoothness of an old bottle.  English barleywines like the (now defunct) Thomas Hardy or J.W. Lees tend to age quite well though, getting more complex and sweeter with time. 

2) Old ales are a good choice--its right there in the name!  Fullers puts out a Vintage Ale every year that ages quite well.  This past summer Dave Manley invited a few of us over to taste some of these vintage bottles and the differences were amazing.  Each one had a box with notes from the brewer on the type of grains and hops used that really helped when evaluating these beers.  Old Stock Ale from North Coast is a good variety to age as well.

3) Imperial Stout is probably the most popular cellared beer style these days.  With a lot of special release beers like Surly Darkness, Three Floyds Dark Lord, etc. people will save these for years in order to try them back to back with different vintages.  I find most Imperial stouts to be very difficult to drink right away--so much hot alcohol and astringency from hopping and dark roasted malts.  But aged a year or two, those rough edges mellow and most will improve greatly in drinkability.  My personal favorite for aging is Darkness: I have 2008 to 2014 waiting on a perfect time to share.

4) Wood aged beers will usually do well over time.  Most have already spent some time in a barrel (spirit or wine most likely) and flavors will continue to blend well once bottled.  The Bruery's Black Tuesday, Town Hall's Czar Jack, and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout are good examples of bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stouts--making these perhaps the most cellarable of beers.  The higher alcohol of these will also help preserve the beer longer.

5) Sours are a great genre to age.  In most, the sourness and complexity from wild yeast and bacteria will continue to change for years.  Some will become less complex and more sour, others will add your results may vary.  True sour lambics like Cantillon are perfect for aging, while some pasteurized or back sweetened ones like The Duchess or Lindemans fruit lambics may actually get sweeter over time. 

6) Holiday beers are on the edge, and it depends what base beer they are using.  Anchor puts out Our Special Ale each year with a slightly different recipe and I have had a 6 year vertical tasting of these before.  The base beer is a fairly low alcohol brown ale and I felt like it didn't hold up to age well.  Avery's Old Jubilation aged one year is incredibly more nuanced than when fresh, but by two years has lost a lot of its punch.  Age these holiday beers at your own risk!

7) Belgians are also a bit of mixed bag.  Because there are so many variations in Belgian beer styles, it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations on aging.  Higher alcohol beers and those darker in color tend to age better, but I've seen some that age well and others that don't.  I've had bottles of New Glarus Belgian Red from the 1990's that were still amazing and tasted like baked cherry pie, where by all rights a 4.5% ABV beer like that should have been terrible.  In general I don't age most non-sour Belgian style ales longer than 2 years.

Beer aging at Cantillon in Belgium


How should one store their beer for the ages?  The enemies of beer quality are oxidation, light, and heat, so avoiding these should be the cornerstone of good beer storage. 

1) Oxidation: There isn't a lot we as the consumer can do here--the packaging process is where this comes in.  Some oxidation can be beneficial and adds to the "aged" character of the beer, but too much will shorten the lifespan of the stored beer.  Based on past experiences I tend to avoid aging beers from "new" breweries because they may lack the resources to properly avoid oxygen exposure resulting in beers may not age as well.  Twist off caps let in more oxygen, so I tend not to age those.  Wax dipped bottles keep out more oxygen over time, so improve the aging process.  I recently tried the aforementioned New Glarus Belgian Red--one in a 750 ml wax dipped bottle, and another in a 12 oz capped bottle.  The latter  had more cardboard/oxidation character that I attribute to the cap.  Corks can potentially be problematic--like in wines if not kept moist it will dry out and allow more oxygen into the bottle.

2) Light: Avoid light exposure to any of your beer!  Ultraviolet light will react with molecules in the beer (hop related) to cause the famous skunky aroma in beer.  Some European lager breweries actually do this on purpose (Heineken I'm talking to you!) to give the beer the Euro-skunk aroma and flavor.  Most bottles nowadays are brown, which blocks most of that UV light, but blue, green or clear bottles will allow more through.  Keep your beers in a dark place like a closet or cupboard, or in covered boxes to minimize sun and light exposure.

3) Heat:  Avoid extremes of heat and cold.  Ideally you want to keep beers cold to slow the aging or staling process.  If you are very lucky and have a walk in cooler--you are going to have fresher beer!  On the other hand, some of those beneficial characteristics you are looking for in aged beer may take longer to develop under refrigerated conditions.  I've tried side by side the same year's vintage of Lagunitas Brown Shugga aged in the fridge and in general basement temp for one year.  The warmer beer had developed more of the classic aged barleywine sherry notes and the refrigerated version had little change from when fresh.  Most home cellars should be located in an area that stays a fairly consistent temperature throughout the year.  I keep mine in the basement where it stays around 62 degrees most of the year.  Those who live in Texas may have problems...

4) Infection: Not mentioned above, but infection will ruin a stored beer and waste all that time and effort you have put into cellaring it.  This is not something you can control (except for homebrews) at home.  If the brewery making that beer had less than stellar sanitation practices, even a small amount of wild bacteria or yeast can set up shop and funkify your precious beer.  A few years back, Boulevard had an infected batch of Chocolate Ale that slowly soured over time.  They were good enough to refund customer's money to make up for it, but I still missed my chocolate beer that year!  Just this past month I cracked one of my special Town Hall Czar Jack bottles from 2011 that had soured, and ended up dumping it down the drain.  I also had this issue with a Bruery White Chocolate that I shared at a recent homebrew club meeting.  This is a risk you take with aging beers rather than drinking them right away.  A small amount of Brettanomyces may not cause problems right away, but a few months after bottling can give you some serious off flavors.  I have even heard stories about exploding bottles and growlers from latent infections, though have not had this happen to me.  I will often open aged beers over a sink in case of gushing from infections, just to be safe.

Building Your Cellar

I'm not handy so this is not a how-to for construction of an actual beer storage cabinet, but rather a way of going about collecting beers for your cellar!  Everyone who cellars beer does it for different reasons.  For some it is the thrill of the hunt--being the first to find that white whale beer and have bragging rights about it.  For others it is the delayed gratification of holding onto that beer for years and finally opening it up for a special occasion.  And for some, it is just another thing to collect like comics or classic cars.

I came into the hobby slowly.  As I mentioned before, the Bigfoot vertical was my start, and each year since then I buy a 6 pack to store away.  Being Minnesotan, I have fairly easy access to Surly special releases and started squirreling away Darkness in 2008 after getting my 6 bottle allotment at Darkness Day.  Other beers I randomly pick up and shove them into my cellar, forgetting about them for a year or two until I suddenly realize I need to crack them open.  Some I get as gifts, or bring back from travel to other countries or states.  On one recent occasion a friend decided to quit his beer trading hobby and sold me his entire cellar at once!  I had to do some serious reorganizing after that.  Another friend moved and I inherited a bunch of beers from the late 1990's to 2000--some have aged well and others have not.  I am rather enjoying sharing those ancient beers out amongst homebrew club members.  So for me, collecting has been a rather organic process over time.

Some people will focus on one particular beer (Bigfoot, Darkness, etc.) or one particular style of beer.  This is probably the easiest and gets less messy, but limits your options.  My tastes are way too varied for that!

I tend to stick to what I can find in the store, or get my friends to bring back from other states.  This takes longer for your cellar to develop, but you end up paying base price for the beer and have control over how the beers are stored.  It is always nice to know someone who lives near a source of rare beer, who can mule it back for you!  I was slightly sad when my mom moved back to Minnesota from Oregon, since she would bring me cases of Deschutes beer each year!  But now, being retired, she will still help me hunt down other local limited release beers while I'm working in the office, so it all evens out!

I know several people who have built a quicker cellar by trading or buying beers online.  The benefit of that is avoiding four years of cellaring to get a 4 year vertical of Alaskan Smoked Porter!  However you run risks of getting poorly stored beers or heat/damage during shipping.  Most of the folks I've known who do this seem to go whole-hog for a while, but eventually either burn out, have children, or find another hobby to occupy their time and money.  Everyone has their own shifting priorities in life! 

Sj actually bought me an entire Rogue Old Crustacean Barleywine vertical from the brewery's web site last Christmas!  Ranging from little 7 oz bottles from 1998 to a big ceramic flip-top monstrosity from 2012, this was an instant mini-cellar. 

Keeping Track

I have only recently begun to properly catalogue my cellar.  I started when I instantaneously doubled my cellar, and needed to stash some things further into dark corners where I would promptly forget they existed.  If you are into trading or selling, this is essential to keep a tally on what you have available to trade and how much you paid for them.  It is also good to watch your dates, since some beers may go south and you end up with too many that you should have tasted sooner.  There are some apps for this, but I just started a spreadsheet on my wife's computer.  The most difficult thing with doing this is remembering to remove the beers when you drink them! 

I will admit that there is some enjoyment to be reached from digging in the back of a closet and discovering a dust and cobweb festooned bottle of something you thought long-gone years ago.  Like Howard Carter seeing the first glint of gold from a long-hidden sarcophagus, finding these "lost" beers can spark your excitement.  But by taking this tactic, you risk waiting too long and missing the beer's peak.  I have started storing my Belgians and lower alcohol "drink soon" beers on a shelf that is more easily accessible and viewed, and keeping the big verticals hidden away in harder to reach places.  For some folks I know, they literally have to hide these types of beers from their spouses or risk finding them empty on the counter when they come home from work!


It is a good idea to have some sort of system to where you are storing these beers.  Some people may have just one shelf or cupboard that is easy to view, but if you have more beers than that it is easy to "lose" them.  I try to keep all my sours together in one place, Imperial stouts in another, barleywines together, and then a random shelf that is easier to see and get at that has my quicker rotation beers like Belgians.  If you have boxes or crates, make sure to label them with what is inside so you don't have to dig into each of them every time you want find a particular beer.

Many beers don't have dates or vintages listed on them and it is a good idea to record that on the bottle.  My friend Steven suggests using a sharpie and marking a date on the cap or label so you can easily find the beer and vintage you are searching for.  I have a couple years worth of Surly Smoke, from before they dated the bottles, that are still a question mark and I wish I had been keeping track better!  Another friend, Dave, used to put a sticker on the bottom of each beer with the year, cost and where he bought the beer. 

Tricks Of The Trade

Drink them!  I have struggled with the urge to hang onto the beers like I'm Smaug the Beer Hoarding Dragon, awaiting some long-distant future when the stars will align for a perfect occasion to taste them.  But if you think about it, how many truly special occasions are there each year?  Birthday, Christmas (or other holidays,) Anniversary?  A big 22 ounce of beer is about all you will be able to finish even if your spouse will share them with you.  If you buy more than one at a time, just crack of one them every 6 months to a year to monitor how they change with time.  This allows you to decide if they are at peak or starting to lose their edge.  That can also help out with judging how other vintages of that particular beer might age. 

Share them!  Periodically have a small group of beer-lovers over and open some of these beers to share.  I get almost as much enjoyment from seeing the feverish gleam of avarice in my friend's eye before we crack a rare beer as when I'm drinking it.  Watching everyone scramble to be the first to check in the beer on Untappd is always fun as well.  However, too many people present can lead to smaller pours and more chaos that isn't always conducive to discussion about that rare beer.  It is a balancing act.

Do vertical tastings!  This will be an excuse to try several at once, and judge the beer against itself.  How does time change the basic character of the beer?  Start with the youngest and go backward in time.  I've got several small collections like Ommegang's Three Philosophers 2003, 2007 and 2011, and four years worth of Alaskan Smoked Porter that will form the cornerstone of a nice shared tasting. 

Pool your cellars!  If you have a few rare beers, and know your friends have a few as well--pool your resources for a more impressive tasting.  I have 4 years of the Stone Vertical Epic beers at home.  I'm going to throw it out there to my homebrew club to see if anyone has the intervening vintages so we can have an Epic tasting of them! 

Host a beer tasting party!  Two years back I hosted an Imperial Stout tasting event at my place with me providing a 4 year vertical tasting of Darkness.  Everyone who came, brought another rare stout and we had an impressive amount of beers shared among 10-14 people.  Tastings of this size allow you to try more beers, but your share of that rare beer you hoarded for 5 years may amount to just a small taster glass.  As mentioned above, larger groups also get louder and you may lose some of the nuance when discussing the individual beers. 

Most importantly enjoy yourself, enjoy the beers and enjoy the camaraderie and company that you find yourself in.  Drinking craft beer is a social hobby and should be shared among friends. 

Are there any tricks or methods that you have discovered regarding beer cellaring over time?  If so please share them with us on the comments for this post!

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