Take a look through the feeds of beer hunters across Instagram and you’ll find kitchen counters full of bottles of hard to find and limited release beers. It’s a cool part of the journey through craft beer, one that I also was a part of some years ago. The thrill of a tip-off to learn that a case of Cantillon is landing at your local beer store, but only the first 6 people get a bottle… better rush out of work early to wait in line!
But at the time I didn’t really know the correct way to store these beers that I bought: barrel-aged imperial stout, huge ABV barleywines, sweet American strong ales. A few turned out great a year or more out, but some would turn to gushers – or even worse – begin to show signs of oxidation and staleness six months to two years out that belied the delicious beer that was first put into the bottle.
Especially now that I work in a brewery, I understand the importance that not only proper cellaring can have on a beer, but which beers can be properly ‘put down’ to enjoy down the road.
For me, I generally follow this short list guideline as to whether or not I will cellar a beer:
- High Gravity Beer – Though many guides and expert will say that a beer over 7% ABV will cellar well, I try to restrict myself to just about 9% ABV and higher. As always there are exceptions, as a 8.5% barleywine could develop some nice flavors as it ages.
- Barleywines – Most barleywines are exceptional out of the gate, but can be put to rest for years and develop a more rounded and sherry-like character.
- Barrel-aged Imperial Stouts – Big whiskey and bourbon aged stouts can benefits from waiting. I’ve found that even coming out of the barrel at Due South, stouts in a barrel can still be sharp with ‘spiky’ flavor profiles. Letting them sit and allowing the beer to mellow will round off some of the edges and create a unique drinking experience.
- Beers with Brett – Brettanomyces can do wonders to a beer by drying it out into an almost Champagne-like Brut character. The bacteria will continue to ferment sugars left in the beer at a slow pace for a long while.
- Bottle Conditioned – Some bottle conditioned beers can get some fantastic effervescence by being held on to for a year.
Beers not to cellar:
- Flavored With Adjuncts – There are a lot of beers with adjuncts in them (coconut, chocolate, coffee, just to name a few) that can be part of big, bold, and high ABV beers. I’ve found that many if not most of these beers lose a significant amount of their character after only 3-6 months in the bottle. I try not to cellar these types of beers anymore.
- Hoppy Beers – Yes, hops provide stabilization for beer and prevent the growth of rogue bacteria, but modern brewers use hops for their fresh aroma and flavor profiles. Holding on to a beer that’s hoppy will just allow that hop flavor to fade away into nothingness…
As for how to cellar, it’s pretty simple, though might take some special work if you live somewhere warm like I do. Firstly, store your beer cold. Heat is the ultimate fast forward button to aging, so yes, if you want to ‘age’ your beer about twice as fast, leave it at room temperature. The problem is, you don’t really want any swings in temperature, so find somewhere that will stay the same temperature all day, every day. This is why I recommend a wine refrigerator. Set it to 60F and you’re off to the races.
Second is to keep the beer dark. Light is another nasty killer of good beer, so shield it from the sun, your lamps, or any other sources of illumination.
Finally, I’d recommend if you are buying a lot of rare, limited release, or otherwise special beer to at least try it fresh and see what the brewer is intending for you to experience before you store it all way in a dark closet to cellar or even use as trade bait. If you have good beer, drink it! Don’t end up like so many wine collectors with dusty racks full of ancient Burgundian treasure.