Cellar Aging Beer
Everything You Need to Know
Have you ever considered cellar aging beer? Everyone knows that certain wines will age gracefully for years in a cellar with the proper conditions of temperature, humidity, and light. But what about aging a beer? It’s not unheard of, but you definitely need to know what you are doing before you begin a cellaring program for your high-end craft beers.
Almost all lagers, and many ales, are already aged or matured at the brewery and then filtered.
The fresher you drink these beers, the better they will taste. But there are many beers that will benefit from cellar aging in your beer cellar and will improve with time.
Generally speaking, cellar aging beer will round out the highs and lows of a beer’s flavor. Some nuances will come forward, others will fade. For the most part, fruit and spices, including hops, will gradually fade with time. Other notes that may be in the background will come forward. It will vary with every beer and with time. But don’t be afraid of drinking your beer when you feel it’s the right time.
Because the next time you open one it may be too late. Plus, drinking those beers just makes more room in your cellar.
Cellar Aging Beer Myths
There are several myths regarding cellar aging beer out there, just like there are quite a few myths about making sour beers. Here are some of the more popular myths debunked.
- You can only cellar age bottle-conditioned beers. This statement is only somewhat true. Bottle-conditioned beers are better candidates than filtered beers. But, you can still cellar age many non-bottle-conditioned beers. A big barleywine will age nicely, gaining complexity with many oxidative notes and a nice vinous character. You will never know how a beer will age unless you try it yourself.
- You can “age out” many flaws in a beer. The truth is, if you put a bad beer in your cellar, it will be a bad beer in a year or two. You can’t normally “age-out” flaws in a beer. Some exceptions might be a beer that is too hoppy for your tastes or has too much spice. The hops and spices will mellow with age and you may find you like the beer better after it has aged for a while. You may feel like a beer is still “green”. This is not really a fault, it just means that the beer is not ready to drink yet. Cellar aging a “green” beer will certainly help it by rounding out the harsh flavors and mellowing out any extreme notes.
- You should only cellar age non-pasteurized beers. There are many beers out there that are pasteurized that are still great options for cellar aging beer, like Rodenbach’s Grand Cru, the famous Flanders red from Belgium.
- A corked beer must be laid on its side to keep the cork from cracking. Or how about, never lay a corked beer on its side because the sediment will lay on the long side of the bottle, and the sediment to beer ratio will make the beer taste like autolyzed yeast. Or the beer will take on a “cork” flavor. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence either way to make a definitive decision. For me, I lay my corked beers down simply because I’ve always laid my wine bottles down and centuries of convention and tradition can’t be wrong. But, that’s just my opinion.
- You can only age the beer for one year, after that they all start going downhill. See “How Long Should I Cellar Age a Beer?” below. No one really knows how long any particular beer should be aged, but there are examples of beer that can be gracefully aged for 20 years or more.
Optimum Cellar Aging Beer Conditions
To properly cellar age beer, here are the optimum conditions it will need:
Just like a wine cellar, the ideal temperature for cellar aging beer should be between 55° and 60° F. If you let your cellar get much below 40°F, the aging process will crawl too slowly, or the yeast may stop working altogether. Since large bottles and kegs age more slowly than smaller bottles, keep the smallest bottles in the coolest part of your cellar. Purchase some good thermometers and get to know your cellar’s coldest and warmest spots.
With more and more beers being corked rather than capped, humidity plays an important role in your cellar aging beer program. The ideal cellar humidity should be between 50% and 70%, to keep the corks from drying out and allowing oxygen into the beer. Too much humidity can cause mold growth on bottles, especially inside bottles with loose caps. If at all possible, use an air purifier to help prevent problems with mold if your cellar humidity runs high.
Keeping your cellar dark will prevent light from “skunking” your beer. Skunked beer is a fault caused by the reaction of isomerized alpha acids from hops (isohumulone) with riboflavin in
the presence of light. With the amount of time your beers will be laid down, there is a real possibility of light reacting with your beers even if they are in the proper bottles. If you must keep
a light on inside, and have florescent lighting, consider using some kind of filter on the lights. Keeping the beer in protective boxes or cases while cellar aging beer may be a good idea as well. If you plan on laying your corked beers on their sides, why not purchase some wooden wine cases to lay them in and class-up your cellar a bit?
Beers with caps should be stored upright to allow the yeast in bottle-conditioned beers to settle to the bottom. There is some controversy on whether or not to lay corked beer on its side while cellar aging beer. For those who worry that the corks will dry out and crack, then the beers should be
laid on their sides and turned periodically, just like a fine bottle of wine. For those who worry about the amount of yeast and oxygen the beer may be exposed to, or any negative flavors from the cork, then by all means, keep the corked bottle upright so the yeast and sediment can settle to the bottom of the bottle and minimize exposure. Or, how about conducting an experiment. Lay a few of each beer down and keep a few upright and take good tasting notes on any differences you may notice. Once you have a preference and have documented notes to prove it, please shoot me an email and I’ll publish your results in my beer blog.
When cellar aging beer, make sure your cellar is stable. Beers, like wine, do not like vibration. For bottle-conditioned beers especially, dead yeast needs to stay on the bottom of the bottle and not be constantly vibrated into suspension where the beers can take on autolyzed flavors of the dead and dying yeast cells.
Setting Up Your Cellar
Cellars for aging beer can be as simple as a dark closet or as complex as a high-end wine cellar below ground. An extra refrigerator with temperature control works well. Most of us homebrewers have fridges set-up with temperature control for fermenting our beer in. Ideally the refrigerator needs to be dedicated to cellaring beer, but if you must use it for fermentation, I wouldn’t worry too much. If it’s all you have, it’s better to keep your best beers at a cool cellar temperature than to keep them at room temperature.
Be sure to keep good records on your cellar aged beers. Begin tasting at 6 months and then every year after that. If you have bought a case of one vintage, by all means, taste the beers every six months. Once the beer has aged to your liking, put the beer on the top shelf. Give it a week or so for the sediment to settle and then start drinking them. Be sure to take good notes and include as
much information as you can, like purchase date, place of purchase, date of release (if known), date into cellar, how it was stored at the store if applicable, tasting dates etc. It’s good to try a beer before cellaring the rest so you have notes on how it tastes fresh. You can then keep track of how
certain aspects of the beer are changing with time. One app I found for iphone is calle TapCellar. With this app, you can journal all the beers in your cellar with a photo, timestamp, location and some text, and you can do that for all the beers you have laid down. If you are going to go to all the trouble to create a beer cellar, you might as well keep good records. It will pay dividends in the end.
Drink the hoppier beers and lighter beers first. Then the maltier, stronger, spiced, smoked or
sour beers later on. So, what are the best candidates for cellar aging beers?
Cellar Aging Beer-Which Beers Age the Best?
You really need to know the history of prospective beers you want to cellar and age. Buy your beers as fresh as possible and label the beer with the purchase date and vintage. You might be able to decipher the brewery’s codes on the bottles or packaging and be able to determine exactly when the beer was bottled. Try to purchase as many bottles of each vintage as you can for obvious reasons.
Some of the beers you might look for are barley wines, strong ales, some stouts (particularly imperial stouts), Belgian Trappist or Belgian strong ales and abbey beers, gueuze and other sour beers, Scottish Wee Heavies and strong ales, and barrel-aged beers. When cellar aging beer, there are a few strong lagers that may be laid down, such as Samichlaus. One of the most important things you should do when deciding which beer to purchase for cellaring is to look on the brewery’s website or call and ask the brewery about the cellar aging potential of the prospective beer. They are the ones who will really know best. Be sure to look closely at the label as well. Sometimes the brewers will let you know that the beer is meant to be aged or will offer expiration
dates. This is still a new phenomenon, so as more and more craft beer enthusiasts begin cellar aging beer, you should be able to find online forums or groups who will be glad to share their finds and tasting notes with you.
It just makes sense that the stronger the beer, the better it will age. Generally, high gravity beers
with alcohol levels above 8% ABV will age the best. There are a lot of beers out there that fall
into this category; barleywines, old ales, imperial anything, eisbocks, etc.
Barrel-aged beers like Unibroue’s Maudite, and any of the hundreds of other beers that have been barrel aged. These beers have been aging in barrels for a long time, soaking up the complex flavors from the oak, char, and whatever was originally in the barrel. Storing them longer in your cellar brings out many of the fruity, vanilla, and oak flavors even more.
Smoked beers, or “rauchbier” in German, are good choices to age. Smoke has a preservative effect on beer. A couple of good American smoked beers you might try are Alaskan Brewing Co.’s Alaskan Smoke Porter and Rogue Smoke. Just imagine what the smoked character will taste like in 5 years!
There is a difference of opinion when it comes to highly hopped beers. Some recommend them when cellar aging beer because the hops will preserve the beer by inhibiting bacterial action. But others say that you will be disappointed if you expect the hops to be prominent after aging several years. I think a highly hopped beer, such as an American Barleywine is a good candidate for cellaring, as long as you realize that the majority of the hops will drop out and the malt will come forward after a few years of aging. You should notice some vinous qualities as well.
Sour beers are great candidates for aging. Since sour beers are acidic (have a pH similar to wine), and have very little hops, they have the potential to age well for a long time. As more and more breweries are starting sour beer and barrel-aging programs, you should have no problem finding American sour beers to the cellar.
Here are just a few ideas to get you started: Bell’s Expedition Stout, New Belgium Abbey Grand Cru, Boon Gueuze, Chimay Grand Reserve, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Dogfish Head Immort Ale, Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Samuel Adams Triple Bock, Millennium, Utopia, or some of their other special
releases, Allagash Dubbel Reserve,North Coast Brewing Old Stock Ale, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Deschutes Brewery-The Abyss, Three Floyds Brewing-Dark Lord, The Alchemist-Heady Topper, Founders Brewing-Breakfast Stout, Russian River Brewing-Pliny the Younger, and Westvleteren Abdij St. Sixtus-Westvleteren 12. There are many, many more great possibilities out there, but the list above should get you started.
Cellar Aging Beer:
Label Keywords to Look For
Here are some keywords to look for on the beer labels that will help you determine if it is a good beer to age:
- Bottle-Conditioned: means the beer has been fermented in vessels at the brewery and fresh yeast and/or a precise amount of fermentable sugar have been added to carbonate the beer in the bottle. The active yeast will not only consume the residual sugars in the beer to make CO2, it will scavenge any remaining oxygen during the first few days which will ensure the beer will not have oxidation issues down the line. Bottle-conditioning adds
complexity to the beer. Bottle-conditioned beers are often great prospects for cellar aging.
- Vertical: Typically, breweries release vintage brews that are high-gravity beers produced in limited quantities, and labeled or stamped with the year (vintage) of production. For those who collect multiple vintages, a vertical tasting is a great reason to lay down these beers. A vertical tasting describes the tasting of two or more vintages of one beer. Most often they are tasted in the order of newest to oldest vintage. The vintages do not need to be sequential. One example would be Stone Brewing’s Vertical Epic Ales. From Stone’s website: “AN EPIC 11-YEAR BUILDUP-As with any good epic, herein lies the promise of larger-than-life experiences, heroics and twists & turns as the adventure unfolds. These bottle-conditioned ales were specifically designed to be aged until sometime after December 12, 2012. Provided anyone was able to keep their hands off of them, this lineup was intended to be enjoyed in a “vertical” tasting—starting with 02.02.02 and ending with 12.12.12. Within it you’d find each one unique to its year of release. Each providing its own “twist & turn” in the plotline. Each one released one year, one month and one day from the previous year’s edition.”
- Special or Reserve Release: Special or Reserve Release is an additional brewery offering that is not part of their regular inventory. These beers can be made available each year on a rotating basis, in limited quantities, or they can be small-batch offerings that are brewed one time only. These are released to celebrate a brewery’s anniversary, or to allow the brewers to stretch their brewing muscles and to have some fun. Special releases and reserve offerings are a popular way for craft beer lovers to try different styles and experience some small-batches of unique beers.
- Brettanomyces or Brett: are considered “wild” yeast by many brewers. They are somewhat unpredictable and will always take time to develop and fully ferment a beer. For example, a good lambic, gueuze or other sour beer styles may take up to two years to fully develop and are great candidates for cellar aging beers. Many of these sour beers will also have some kind of lactic acid-producing bacteria involved in the fermentation. The brewers work hard to ensure these are kept in check and the beer ends up balanced and complex. These beers have great potential for cellar aging.
Cellar Aging Beer-How Long?
No one really knows how long a beer should be cellared. Breweries are popping up everywhere and of course, their beers have never been cellared before. It really all depends on how the beers were handled at the brewery and afterward as well. Brewers and beer lovers will determine the best aging times for individual beers by trial and error. And as the information gets disseminated, the error will become less and less. Some beers, like a Cantillon lambic will age beautifully for 20 years or more whereas a Chimay Blue Grand Reserve will be peaking at around 10 years at optimum conditions. Just remember, that cellar-aging beer is not a science. Drink the beer when you determine it tastes great and have fun. Having fun is the main appeal of homebrewing after all, and should be your main goal in this new hobby of cellar-aging craft beers.
References: The information for this article about cellar aging beer was adapted in part from the article in Draft Magazine called “How to cellar beer” published in September 28, 2010, the article in Realbeer.com entitled “Making sure older is better” from Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 23 published February 8, 2001, the article entitled “How Long Should You Cellar Our Bottles?” from The Rare Barrel-A Sour Beer Company published May 21, 2014, from “Setting up a beer cellar: Everything you need to know in an infographic” by Craft Brewing Business Staff on March 29, 2016, and the article in All About Beer Magazine Volume 26, Issue 4 published September 1, 2005 called “Storing Beer: How to Design a Best Cellar” by Alan Moen.
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