What Cellaring Does for Your Beer

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Wine aficionados have always been passionate about the vintage of their bottles. They often say “it was a good year,” or talk about how many years the bottle has been aged. Some people are compulsive enough to only store bottles on their sides, in a temperature and humidity controlled fridge. This is loosely accepted as the proper way to mature your fine wine. Although the majority of people believe that wine will get better with age, many still believe that beer won’t. I’ve heard people claim that a beer can’t change once it’s bottled, because nothing can get in or out. Ironically, those same people are worried that after a year of sitting in the bottle the beer will spoil. What a double standard!

Time and Cellaring Your Beer

Anybody that has brewed beer before will notice that time can have a huge impact on their brew’s quality. Your homebrew may seem watery for the first couple months. Your IPA’s will have the most hop aroma and flavor when they’re fresh. Your stronger beers have an alcoholic bite that seems to fade as months pass. Something is going on that allows these beers to change in the bottle. To better understand this, let’s go back to before your beer was beer. On brew day you created wort, hopped it, chilled it, and pitched yeast into it in your primary container. Then you let your beer ferment for a couple weeks. During fermentation your beer obviously makes alcohol, but according to White Labs it also creates over 500 other compounds! Some of these compounds can’t be detected, or exist in such small amounts that they won’t affect the beer negatively.
However, others can be detrimental to the flavor, aroma, and shelf life of your beer. Luckily, the same yeast that created these compounds has the power to “clean” them up. Since your primary has a lot of yeast, it can be beneficial to leave your beer in there for another 1-2 weeks to allow more time for the yeast to reduce these negative by-products (3-4 weeks overall). Any longer though and the yeast will start to break itself down (autolysis) and create more off flavors. You can also use a secondary vessel for a longer cleanup process. However, since most of the yeast was left behind during racking, there is less yeast to help out, and it will take more time. Even after you bottle, there will be some residual yeast left behind that you will notice as sediment in the bottom of your bottles. This is the yeast that helps you carbonate if you’re bottle conditioning. This small amount will continue to “clean up” your beer, and alter the types/amounts of compounds in your beer while it sits in your cellar. Even though your bottle is sealed, the compounds already in your beer are constantly changing. Generally speaking, the flavors in your beer will blend together better and become smoother as it ages.

Oxygen and Cellaring Your Beer

As I mentioned earlier, storing bottles of wine on their sides is a common practice. It is also a misconception. Wine bottles used to be stored on their sides to keep the cork wet and swollen, so they would not dry out and let air into the bottles. This made sense when all corks were made of cork, but times have changed. Today many bottles use synthetic corks, or even twist off caps, so there’s not always a need to keep your bottles on their sides. Still, most wine racks encourage this kind of storage. Likewise, there is no need to store your cellaring beer on its side. It can actually be bad for your brews. When your bottle is standing up, only a dime sized surface of your beer is touching the air trapped in the neck of the bottle. When you lay your bottle on its side you have a much larger surface area of your beer touching this air. Over long periods of time the oxygen in this air can speed up oxidation (makes sense right?) and make your beer age less gracefully. To help battle this, you can also bottle your beers using oxygen barrier caps which will absorb the remaining oxygen inside your bottles.

Temperature and Cellaring Your Beer

Another important factor to cellaring your beer is temperature. The yeast remaining in your bottle produces different compounds and different amounts of them at certain temperatures. Aging your beer warm can speed up how quickly it matures, but it will also produce some harsher compounds. On the other hand, aging your beer at too cool of a temperature can greatly slow down the yeast, or even make them dormant. This can be noticed by the long lagering times required for lagers (several months). Even though lager yeast is made for cold fermentation, the even colder lagering period still slows down its maturation. The lagering period is used to smooth out the beer, which once again confirms that time and temperature does play a role. Generally speaking, stronger/darker beers can be aged around 55-60ºF, while more average strength beers can be matured at 50-55ºF. Lighter beers (like lagers) can go down to the 45-50ºF range, which will likely need a refrigerator unless you live in a cave. If you do use a fridge for aging your beers, be conscious that part of a fridge’s job is to dehumidify. For years of aging, you’ll be better off letting a corked beer age in your cellar, where there is more humidity in the air to keep the cork from drying out and letting oxygen in.

Light and Cellaring Your Beer

As many of us know light is also the enemy of beer. There’s an old Sam Adams commercial where they brag about only using dark brown bottles and high cardboard walls on their 6 packs to block more light while their beer is sitting in a store’s cooler waiting to be bought. It’s important to keep light from your beer because it breaks down the alpha acids put in there by the hops. These broken down compounds then react with other proteins in the beer which contain sulfur. This interaction forms another chemical that is almost identical to what a skunk sprays at its attackers. That’s where the term “skunked” beer comes from. Sam Adams cares about your beer! So it’s true that beer is best stored in dark bottles, and in a dark place. Clear or green glass bottles aren’t recommended since they let in more light than a typical brown bottle. If you’re able to age your beer in a keg long term, that’s even better. That blocks all light, and you’re able to easily purge the head space with CO2 before stashing it away to reduce oxidation.
On a more subjective note, I’ve experimented with aging a bunch of different beers, and the process doesn’t always yield the same effect. That’s what makes it fun though! My friend bought a 4 year old, barrel aged stout from Hoppin Frog to see if we could tell a difference from the aging (we had both tried this beer fresh before). We both agreed that the aged beer had become much easier to drink. It had developed a smooth, velvety texture, and the alcohol presence, which was normally boozy, had transitioned to a more welcoming warmth. A beer that we normally had to sip slowly was disappearing a lot faster. However, when I later acquired a 6 year old bottle of the same stuff, I was not as impressed. It was still better than a fresh bottle, but something about the beer didn’t seem as well blended and smooth as the 4 year old bottle. There are a lot of variables that could have caused this, but I now know that longer aging doesn’t always mean better. Aging your beer adds another dimension for beer lovers, and its unpredictability is what makes it seem kind of magical. If you were unaware that aging beer was an option, or haven’t tried it yet, I recommend you set aside a few bottles for 1-2 years. I personally find it to be diminishing returns after about 3 years, but everybody has their own preference. Enjoy what you have now, by waiting another year!
Mike Camera
Do you have any sources on research of wax being used to help oxygen from getting into sealed crown cap bottles or swing tops. I had a conversation with UC Davis at the Craft Beverage Conferences and their opinion was that anytime you can prevent oxygen form getting into the beer was a good thing because if it does get in it will change the profile as you discussed. I am doing more research on this so that we can state a proven benefit to waxing other then it's obvious estetic value and tamper evident seal properties. Please contact me at anytime if you would like to discuss further. Cheers!
Peter Griffin
Nice write up!. Its worth noting defects so manage to work themselves out too with aging. I once lost a mesh screen in a carboy to find it month later terribly metallic. The mesh screen was dissolved. 4 months later it was clean and normal. I've made beer with home captured yeast that had the same improvement with time cellared.
Good article. I've been drinking craft beer since about 2005, and aging beers since 2007. I have flat out ruined beers by not aging them properly. Far and away the most important thing is keeping your beers cold if you're planning on going longer than say one year (to be safe). I see the temperature ranges you have here, which is good. Do NOT just guess or eyeball this. Make CERTAIN your beers are in this range or better yet just keep them in a fridge if you're able to.
I'm to the point where I age everything in a fridge or keezer. The beer will STILL age, and you'll still get the characteristics that you're looking for, but it just might take a little bit longer. I'd rather err on the early side of a beer than on the late side of one, as over aged beers seem to all take on that sweet sherry-like flavor. I urge you all not to make the mistake I did--KEEP IT COLD!!
I aged half of my black ale I brewed last year for an entire year in my pantry up high in those recappable bottles. The damn things let out all the carbonation!!! The beer had gone flat in a year! I was SOOOO dissappointed! So I wouldn't recommend them for aging. Use the twist offs for that.
Good article! However, I'm getting a little confused with aging temperature. I've read many recipies that state to bottle condition the beer at 70. This article states that it should be much lower?
So you do want to condition it for a few weeks at 70. This temperature allows the yeast to ferment the new sugar in the bottle and create carbonation. After that period, dropping the temperature is best for long term storage (like if you were to age a barleywine for 6+ months).
I've found that I like mostly BA beers and barley wines with right around a year on them. Like you said it tends to smooth things out nicely.
I don't understand the aging trend in wine either. I used to go to tastings, and I preferred the ones that tasted fresh and juicy almost like grape juice.
I gifted a six pack to a friend on Christmas 2015, he stuck it in a cabinet and forgot about it. I "reclaimed" the other day...beer was about 18 months old at that point. I chilled a Porter. That was the best Porter I ever drank and certainly the best I had ever made. It was not the same beer I put in that bottle! It had morphed, smoothed out, married up and was just amazing.....really amazing considering I thought it was going to total crap!
So, I just finished wreaking my office looking for my notes on that batch...no luck so far! No matter, I am going to make more darker and bigger beers AND stash them somewhere for a year or so. I am a believer now. Even more reason to convert part of a shed into a conditioned storage "cellar" for beer and wine.
I bottle condition all my beers and for every brew have tasted across a time range of 3 weeks to over 1 year. Definitely the darker more complex beers improve dramatically up to about 6 months and mature further up to a year eg your belgians and oak aged and dark ales but the lighter hoppier styles lose aroma after about 6 months eg wheat beers, IPAs etc. However the fun is the subtle changes over time - my Watermelon wheat beer was too hop dominant at first then blended beautifully for several months but at a year has lost some of the fresh watermelon and is more bitter now. My Raspberry Ruby Ale just got more and more complex from Blackcurrant at first through to a dark raspberry cake after 6 months to a year, my saisons are best from 3-6months and the IPAs I prefer young to get the best from the hops. Experiment!
Hey Peter,
Sorry for the slow response, I just noticed this article got posted. Nobody tells me anything! I didn't do any research on covering bottles with wax, but from my own experience I wouldn't consider wax much of a help in reducing oxidation. I dipped the top 2"of some bottles in wax a couple years ago, to store my stouts long term. I used a combination of crayons and hot glue to make my wax which worked fairly well, but I wish the ratio I used made the wax a little more plastic like, rather than crumbly. Either way, it left a thick wax covering that's so strong that I have to notch out a piece of wax under my caps with a knife, so I can get a bottle opener under the cap to open it. Even with that, it seems like areas of the wax aren't fully adhered to the bottle neck. There's nothing pressing the wax against the bottle to maintain a tight seal. I feel like there's still some tiny channels under the wax that can let air up to the cap. I believe crown caps do a great job keeping out oxygen though and I've never "needed" to add a 2nd barrier with wax. However, it's well known that swing tops are NOT reliable for long term storage. Wax may help slow down spoilage in those, but I personally don't think that would even be as good as a simple crown cap. In the end I don't think waxing your bottles will hurt you so there's only a little money and time to lose. Plus it looks cool.
Yeah swing tops aren't great for long term aging. By twist offs, I think you mean a pry off crown cap. Twist off caps/bottles aren't normally used for homebrewing. If so, then yes a pry off crown cap will do a much better job preserving your beer for a year.
MarshmallowBlue has you covered. I would recommend trying a beer before you store it at a colder temperature. Example, you bottle your beers and store them at 70F for 3 weeks so they can carbonate in the bottle. Chill and drink a beer to make sure it's carbonated. If it is, then move the bottles you want to age to a lower aging temperature (let's say 55F for this example). If the beer you drink is NOT carbonated. Leave the bottles at 70F for another week and try again.
If you move the beers to 55F before they're fully carbonated, you can stall/delay having carbonated beer. Nobody likes to wait longer for beer or find out it's flat after a year of aging!
That's a pleasant surprise! Haha. I had a similar thing happen to a batch of Tripel I made last fall. Fresh, it was only average tasting. So I saved a couple bottles to age and just cracked them last month (after ~5 months of aging). The aged bottles were significantly better than the fresh Tripel I drank. A lot more Belgian character to it, and the overall taste was more full and developed. Not malty water like the fresh stuff.
Agreed! Try your beers at different ages to see when things come together, hops fade, bitterness takes over, etc. It definitely helps you learn more about each style/ingredient. I see a large fall off in hop flavor/aroma in my pale ales, IPA's, and DIPA's after ~6 weeks. They're still good, but they become just average. I try to drink them all within 3 months.