Cellaring Beer, A Gamble Definitely Worth Taking

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Photo by Miguel Rivas

"It's a lot better to gamble on beer in a trusted cellar... some people will tell you they have a cellar and it's really just a room with a window that shines sun directly on their bottles." Benjamin Weiss The Bruery

If you are going to start cellaring beer, it's best to get some advice from the pros. Like a growing number of passionate beer nerds, I have been cellaring beer for a couple of years now. I first became interested in cellaring and aging beer when I started to homebrew and needed to figure out the best way to properly store five gallons of beer at a time. After brewing a couple of beers, I decided to start keeping a few bottles of each batch to see how they would age. From there, my curiosity (coupled with my weakness of buying way more beer than one can drink) lead me into starting to age, or "cellar," a variety of different types of beers.
Anyone who starts to research the topic of aging beer will find a wide range of opinions coming from many different types of people. Personally, I found it pretty hard to separate truth from opinion. While I have been researching and cellaring beer personally for a while, to really give this project some street cred, I reached out to some people that have been brewing and aging beer WAY longer than I have and on a much grander scale. I was lucky enough to get in contact with Nino Bacelle, brewmaster and co-owner of Brewery De Ranke in Belgium, Ron Jeffries founder of Jolly Pumpkin and Benjamin Weiss, certified Ciscerone / director of marketing at The Bruery in Orange County. While there is still a lot to be learned about aging beer, I figured if anyone can give us somewhere to start, these would be the guys to do it!
Before we get into the topic of aging beer, it should be stated that some beers are just not meant to age. As a general rule, hoppy beers should be enjoyed very fresh. "Spices fade with time, so if you'd like to taste them, fresher is better. Same with hops, and in fact some of the oxidized hop flavors are pretty gross", wise words from Ron at Jolly pumpkin. In addition, lower alcohol beers, which contain minimal amounts of dark malts, as well as beers that are pasteurized, are usually not meant to age. With that being said, there are always exceptions to the rules, lighter beers such as saisons and sours can age very well, so feel free to experiment!
Hops
It is widely known that hop forward beers are not meant to age. One shining example is Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing Company. With this beer, the brewers take all the guesswork out of it for you by placing the words, "Keep cold, drink fresh, do not age," right on the label, followed by multiple other warnings about aging the beer. This is because Pliny is known for its beautiful hoppy nose, beers that are hop forward will lose flavor over time. To understand why, we turn to our friends over at Homebrewtalk.com to explain. "The bittering, flavor, and aroma characteristics of hops are created by a two major types of chemical compound contained in the cone-shaped hop flower: acids and oils." Unfortunately, these amazing oils break down over time, losing their beautiful aroma along with some of their characteristic taste.

Higher ABV Beers and Sours

These are most likely the beers that will change the most with cellaring. This category is also where Nino from Brewery De Ranke and Benjamin from the Bruery really got excited to share their thoughts. Since the Bruery is known for their fair share of higher ABV beers (Black Tuesday, Chocolate Rain, Grey Monday ... you get the deal), I tossed the aging question Benjamin's way, to which he responded, "Especially beers that have more dark malt tend to age well. Boozy beers tend to mellow in the bottle, becoming a bit sweeter and sometimes that bit of oxidation can add a nice character to the sweet beer." That being said, just because a beer is dark and has a higher ABV does not mean that it will age. As Benjamin put it, "Some beers honestly don't change much at all, especially if all or most of the yeast has been removed, and most certainly if the beer was pasteurized.".

Photos by Miguel Rivas

For information on aging sours, I turned to Nino, founder of Brewery De Ranke, a Belgian Brewery famous for their Kreik and "Cuvee De Ranke," amongst other excellent beers. Nino is a big advocate for cellaring your beer and watching it change over time, stating, "Almost all sour beers can age. They will have a very nice evolution in the first year to the third year, but even much longer if you have good quality beers with complex sours as for example, oude geuze, kriek, and blended beers with lambic or oude bruin beers. Good quality beers of this kind can age easily up to 15 or 20 years or even older!" Nino told me he recently had a 27 year-old oude geuze, which he described simply as being, "fantastic!" Such beers have the potential to change a significant amount (for better or worse) when being aged due to the yeasts in the beer and fact that a lot of them are bottle conditioned and unpasteurized.
Storage
Like aging wine, cellaring beer is a risk. Benjamin from the Bruery put it best when he said, "it's a lot better to gamble on beer in a trusted cellar... some people will tell you they have a cellar and it's really just a room with a window that shines sun directly on their bottles." It's common knowledge that sun is bad news for beers, so avoid placing your beer in sunlight at all costs. When exposed to UV light, isohumulones in the beer are broken down, which in turn have the potential to bind to sulfur atoms, leading to "skunked" beer (duh!). Moral of the story-- keep your beer out of the sun!

Photo by Miguel Rivas
The other variable you want to control, if at all possible, is the temperature in the room where your beer is stored. Main things to avoid are large temperature fluctuations and excessive heat, as there are a lot of "off flavors" that may develop as a result of both. Though there is a lot of debate on the "exact" temperature that beer should be stored at, you should be fine if you keep it somewhere between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
If your beer is capped, it should be stored upright. This is because bottle caps have an outer plastic lining that separates the beer from the metal cap itself. If the beer is stored on its side, the plastic may break down over time, leading to direct contact with the metal and the potential for off-flavors to develop (bad news!). Ron and Jolly Pumpkin exclusively use caps or "crowns" as they are known. There are a lot more variables when it comes to corking beer so they made the conscious decision to stick with crowns.
If your beer is sealed with a cork, the proper position to store it becomes a bit more cloudy (no pun intended). One of the main cases for storing corked beer upright is that this position will keep any sediment on the bottom of the bottle. With the sediment on the bottom of the bottle, you should get a clearer pour when it comes time to enjoy. In addition, when a beer rests on its side, due to the shape of the bottle, there is more surface area exposed to oxygen, placing it at risk of oxidation.
One case in favor of keeping cork-sealed beer on its side is that this position keeps the cork moist, preventing oxygen from entering in through a dry cork. What does all of this mean? In my personal opinion, how to store cork-sealed beer is a toss-up, and ultimately up to personal preference. If you don't mind a murky pour, store the beer on its side. On the other hand, if you want a cleaner pour, keep it upright.
How Long to Age Beer?
How long should you age a certain beer for? I honestly cannot give you a clear-cut answer. The best advice I have is for you to buy a couple of bottles of the same beer, drink one right away, and one 6 months down the road. If the beer seems have developed in flavor and complexity, keep aging your third bottle for as long as you see fit. Though this may seen as a "cop out" answer, it is truly where we stand right now when it comes to the hard facts behind aging beer. The best we can give is an educated guess, or as Benjamin puts it, "a gamble." Every beer is different and lot of beers are going to be different year after year. Hopefully the guidelines put forth in this article provides you with enough information to at least get you started. While aging beer may be a gamble, anyone that has had the opportunity to taste a 10 year old gueuze or a bottle of Black Tuesday that has beautifully mellowed after aging for a few years will let you know that the gamble is 100% worth it!
Keeping Track of your Cellar with The Beer Exchange App
One of the biggest problems people run into is that they start cellaring beer and don't have a good way of keeping track of the beer they are storing. After a while, that special bottle that needs to be drunk begins to blend in with the similar bottles surrounding it, especially if the beer is being kept properly in a dark location. Some people make spreadsheets while other write on their bottles, but the general consensus is that most people do not have a solid and trusted way to keep track of their beer. We at The Beer Exchange decided that there must be a better and easier way! With more and more people trading and cellaring beer, we decided to create a companion application for our beer-trading site, thebeerexchange.io. The new application will let you manage your personal cellar, for trade (FT), and in search of (ISO) lists on the go. We are currently working on expanding the app to have full trading and cellaring functionality, so stay tuned and keep adding bottles to your collection!
Luke W Schmuecker
The Beer Exchange
For more information on The Beer Exchange or to sign up for a free account, visit:
www.TheBeerExchange.io.
 
Cheers Luke! Now that I have the perfect room for aging beer and wine I can't wait to get started on my collection. The one thing that I'm taking away from this article is to keep of my inventory.
 
Nice article. When I have a cellar, I will certainly begin brewing beers that will do well with aging (belgians mostly... I love belgians).
 
Very nice article. I've been nervous about cellaring beer due to not having enough refrigeration space. I'm surprised by the suggested temperature range, "between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit". So it sounds like if I have a room in my basement in this temperature range I'm fine just stacking the bottles like in the one picture in this article?
 
I've tried cellaring with limited success. Once I had a beer for over a week before drinking it, but I had the flu so that probably doesn't count.
Seriously, if I start stocking up on awesome sours and RISs and whatnot, I'm not sure how to not just drink them within weeks. I guess you need to treat it pretty separately from the other beer supply. I have a great spot for it though, in a crawl space under a home addition. I use it for storing wood mostly, due to the nice conditions. Beer would work in there too. Maybe I'll get a few of my favs and see if I can hang on to them.
 
@LiquidFlame the temperature you cellar at does not have to be an exact science. Ideally (if you can control it) we would recommend 55 to 65. If the temp goes lower (40 to 55) it will not age as fast but will not cause damage. If it gets above that temperature, it will increase the rate of oxidation but you should be safe. If it gets really hot (above 75 or 80) that is when you might want to figure out a way to cool the area down so you do not end up damaging the beer. Your main enemy is sunlight so as long as you can avoid that I would say go for it! If you have any questions feel free to shoot me an email [email protected]
 
Being able to make a beer I could age was a big part of why I started brewing. So far all of my ageing experiments have worked well - one of the beers has turned from average to very enjoyable.
I have recently got some 29mm caps from someone who makes methode cap classique (which is champagne, but because it is made in South Africa it can't be called champagne). He does that first stage of bottle fermenting for up to four years using the same caps with the bottles lying flat.
With beer what would be best when using those caps? Lying on the side or upright?
 
@Likefully super interesting question!! From my understanding, the crowns are used for the secondary fermentation of champagne or sparkling wine (as you mentioned for some, this stage can last a couple of years). Once they finish secondary, they begin the "disgorgement process" to remove the sediment which is collected around the neck of the bottle due to the angle they stored at. My guess (and it's a total shot in the dark because there are a million different opinions out there) is that are they use crowns during this stage because of the aggressive angle the bottles are stored, coupled with the possibility an intense fermentation, a cap is a safer option. BUT that is not fact and could be wrong. Once they remove the sediment, they typically cork although personally we buy a solid amount of sparkling from independent producers that is capped instead of corked.
Sounds like the caps you would be using are pretty high quality if they are the same ones he uses (when aging for years) so you should not have any issues with the cap rusting or the beer coming into contact with the metal. Vertical or horizontal? Unless you are going to be going through that "disgorgement process" of removing the sediment, again it comes down to personal preference. Do you mind a cloudier pour? If not store them on the side. If you like a clean pour, let the sediment settle on the bottom and store upright. I don't think you're going to run into any issues either way.
Hopefully this helps - cheers!
 
Thanks, Luke. You have answered an important question that I didn't think of asking! I thought they stored them on the side for a better seal against oxygen leaks, but the points you make about disgorgement make me think differently.
Upright they shall be stored!
 
This comment is based on knowing nothing about cellaring because I am still reading and learning about the entire topic, but could you seal the cork with wax to prevent it from drying out? I saw someone on here do that with some home brew for added presentation.
 
Great article. This and the Vintage Beer book are great resources for cellaring.
BTW, it is Cicerone, not "Ciscerone"
 
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