To Cellar or Not to Cellar
Craft beer drinkers face a number of challenges, but one of the most pressing questions is often whether or not they should cellar a particular beer. While it’s true that a little aging can often have profoundly positive effects on your libations, that’s not always the case. In some instances, cellaring will lead to oxidation and ultimately, un-tasty beer. In fact, some beers really aren’t designed to be cellared at all and the brewer actually wants you to drink it fresh.
The General Rule of Thumb
While there’s a lot of flexibility in the world of beer aging, the general rule of thumb comes down to ABV. For beers with an ABV of 8% or higher, cellaring is generally a good thing that can allow the development of new, more complex flavors, much like aging a fine red wine. However, beers with an ABV of less than 8% generally don’t age well (but this is not a blanket rule).
Malt-heavy beers, like Russian imperial stouts, Baltic porters, and the like, definitely benefit from aging. You’ll find that over time, malt can develop some very interesting flavors, ranging from wine-like to raisin-y.
There are quite a few beer styles that can have an ABV of less than 8% and still benefit from cellaring. Almost all of these have a high acid content. For instance, Flemish reds and sour beers can improve with cellaring, as can lambics.
Any beer with strong flavors derived from something other than hops or fruit will generally benefit from aging. For instance, smoked beers can take on additional complexity while aging, and overly-smoked beer (of which there are sadly too many) will mellow out a bit, allowing the smoke to blend better with the overall malt profile.
Should You Really Cellar That Beer?
If you talk to most craft beer aficionados, you’ll hear them talk about their beer cellar. This might be an actual cellar, or it could just be converted closet space. Whatever the case, it holds their most prized alcoholic possessions while they age and develop. However, you might run into some other drinkers who don’t bother with the cellar at all and just drink their brews fresh. Which is right for you?
There’s actually an argument for both, but more and more brewers are recommending that their fans consume their products fresh. Most of the popular beer styles on the market are designed to be consumed fresh, and brewers actually go to great lengths to ensure that those brews are as fresh as possible when they get to you, the drinker. Why, though?
It comes down to a couple of different factors. One of those is the fact that two of the most popular elements in today’s brews are hops and fruit. Aging doesn’t do either of those any favors. In fact, after about six months or so on the shelf, you’ll notice that the hop character of any beer is reduced, and within a year or so, it’s drastically dropped. The same thing goes for fruit. In fact, fruit flavoring is one of the first things to drop out after a beer reaches peak aging.
So, if you’re planning on putting that DIPA on the shelf for a couple of years, you might want to think twice, at least if you really enjoy hops. If you’re not really a hop head, go ahead and age it if you want.
Tips for Cellaring
If you’re bound and determined to cellar your beer (and we’re not arguing against it, unless it’s a hoppy or fruity variety), then there are a few things you’ll need to know.
First, light is the enemy. Any light exposure can eventually destroy your beer. Light creates “skunky” beer through the development of compounds with an off-flavor. Make sure you store your aging beer somewhere dark and resist the urge to check on them frequently.
Another important note here is that temperature is very important. Not only do you need to keep your beer at a cool temperature (but not too cool), but the temperature needs to stay stable. Ideally, you’ll store your bottles somewhere that the ambient temperature is 50 to 65 degrees F year-round.
However, if you can’t achieve that temperature, you can go a few degrees warmer if the temp will remain consistent. Remember – warmer temps speed up the aging process and will reduce the shelf life of your brew. Avoid cellaring your beers below 50 degrees, though. That will actually slow down the aging process, and you won’t benefit from storing them.
Make sure that your bottles will be undisturbed during storage, too. Movement can churn up yeast and other sediment that’s settled to the bottom, stalling or even reversing some of the changes achieved through aging.
As a final note, store your bottles upright. Yes, there’s conflicting information out there about this, and there’s also the fact that wine is best stored on its side. With beer, though, you want the yeast remaining in the bottle to settle to the bottom rather than the side of the bottle (where it will form a ring that will never settle out). The yeast cake at the bottom of the bottle is also important for proper aging.
Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to cellar your beer is completely up to you. Some drinkers swear by it. Others prefer to drink everything fresh. It’s very much worth experimenting with a few brews though. Take a couple of good stouts and stick them away somewhere dark and cool for a year or so. You might be surprised at the changes you experience when you pop the top.
What’s your personal take on it? Do you cellar any of the beers you buy or do you prefer to drink them fresh?