Much like a fine wine, many craft beers today are prime for aging, or cellering. A surprising number of craft beers can benefit from extended aging, given that you store them correctly and take good care of them during the process. This is not to imply that EVERY craft beer, or any beer, for that matter, will age well. Many beers are meant to be drank within a short period of time after being brewed, like Pliny The Elder, or Stone’s Enjoy By series. These beers, as well as many less unique ones, are meant to be enjoyed within 2-6 months. This being said, let’s take a look at the beers that you can age, and how it can be done safely and effectively.
Why Age Beer?
Aging beer is done for the same reason any other liquor or wine is aged, to bring out flavors and alcohol content that would not be present with initial brewing. Aging a beer that is meant for the process, like a strong ale, barlywine, lambic, imperial stout, or others, helps the beer to mature and gives it a totally new life from it’s fresh brewed one. These beers have active yeast still present in them, and some have fruit and/or spices in them that the alcohol breaks down. This mellows tastes and helps give an amazing overall experience when you finally enjoy it. Generally, if there is a great beer, like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, I will buy 2 at a time. 1 to drink, and 1 to age. This way, you get to enjoy the beer when bought, as well as reap the benefits of aging. When drinking the fresh beer, you can take notes on how it tastes so you can refer back to the notes when drinking the aged one. While this is kind of extreme, it is a great example of the flexibility of craft beer fans. You can enjoy it on any level you want. Please note here that only beer that has some active yeast left will be good for aging. You will get no benefit from aging a Miller Lite, but an amazing reward from aging a Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine or an aged Cantillion.
Another plus to aging beer is the vertical tasting. In a vertical tasting, multiple years of one specific beer are tasted to see how aging affects the beer, as well as the slight variations in brewing a special beer from one year to the next. This is done with at least 2 different years, and can go back as many years as there are aged bottles. I personally have partaken in vertical tastings hosted by other beer lovers that have included 10 years of a specific beer. This is generally unheard of unless it is a special occasion or some other epic event.
You can start planning your own vertical tastings of your favorite age-able beers by storing 5-10 per year of the beer, making sure to get the latest year’s brew to store. Next, we’ll look at how the aging and storing is done. The hardest part is having the willpower to not drink the beer before it’s planned date. If you can get over this, aging beer is fairly easy.
How to Age
The act of aging beers is often referred to as “cellering” them, or creating a beer cellar. While this sounds like an entire room dedicated to beer, your beer cellar can be an empty beer case that you keep sealed up in a dry, cool part of your basement.
Direction Of Storage
If you have ever seen wine bottles being aged, you are probably familiar with the common wine rack with all the bottles laying on their sides. While the direction a beer is stored is highly contested in the craft beer world, I will recommend what many other sites recommend, and that is storing ALL bottles, whether they have a cork or a cap, in the upright position and not on their sides. The idea that a cork must be kept wet to keep it from drying out is a myth. If your beer is in constant contact with a cork, or a cap for that matter, for any length of time, the cork or metal can impart a taste on your beer. Corks today generally have a coating on them to help their seal, and this can impart off flavors in the beer over time. The alcohol in the beer can pull a musty, moldy character from the cork, which can ruin any beer. The same with caps, and their metal/plastic composition.
If you have an issue with a cork drying out, more likely than not, it is due to a faulty cork, not how it was stored. Remember, there is a constant humidity inside the bottle, so drying should never be an issue. Another excellent point on upright storage is the amount of beer open to the air inside the bottle. There is a little air in every bottle, and when upright, very little beer is touching it. On it’s side, there is a much larger surface area touching the air. Less air contact = less oxidation of the beer.
The last point to make for upright storage is yeast settlement. When upright, the dead yeast can compact on the bottom of the bottle, instead of the side, where it is agitated when you move and pour it. Dead yeast can give beer an off flavor, so letting it settle out is a good idea.
The “Beer Experts” say…
Remember, many people out there claim to be beer experts, and those “experts” often try to align craft beer with the wine industry, to give it validation and help give themselves a hopeful higher place in the food chain. This is why it’s good to learn the truth behind beer storage, and craft beer in general, for that matter. Learn for yourself, and help others learn for themselves. Personally, I will never consider myself an “expert,” but rather just a lover of good beer and someone who is always willing to learn more.
Where To Store Your Beer
One of the biggest enemies to beer is light. Add to that temperature, and you have the two best suggestions for storing your beer. The best place to store beer is in a cool area, away from direct sunlight, sources of heat, and in a constant temperature. To store a beer perfectly can be tricky. You want to keep it cool enough that bottle fermentation doesn’t run away from you and shorten the lifespan of the beer, but too cold and you risk giving the beer a constant cloudy look. Here are some more specifics:
- Strong beers tend to prefer standard temperatures around 13-16 C. This includes barleywines and other stronger beers.
- Standard Ales like IPAs and stouts prefer to be slightly chillier at 10-13 C.
- Lighter beers need refrigerator level temperatures of 8- 10 C.
A good rule here is that the higher alcohol beers need warmer temperatures, while lower alcohol beers require lower temperatures to survive. Note that long term storage of corked beer in a refrigerator is not recommended due to the cork drying out.
This is why a standard basement is a great place to store beer, as the temperature generally stays the same. Just make sure to keep your beer away from anything damp, to protect the cap/cork, and any sources of heat, like a furnace, water heater, or the heat that comes off of a refrigerator of freezer.
One last tip to mention is the temperature at which you serve an aged beer. Try to serve the beer as close to the storage temperature as possible. This will help you to preserve the carbonation and flavor.
There was a fair bit of information in this post, but with the ever increasing list of celler-able beers coming out in the market now, and their decreased availability, learning how to store your beer correctly can help you to keep those beers for a rainy day, and even have a vertical tasting of your own. Good luck, and cellar responsibly!