Growing Old Together

cellaring beers
cellaring beers

One of our most frequently asked questions at the brewery, is "How long can I age X?". And while my objective today is not to provide a definitive list of aging timelines for every beer ever brewed and bottled (can't Garrett Oliver get on this already?), I do want to talk about the notion of delayed gratification, investing in the future, or that hot-cake of a topic: Cellaring.

There are a lot of specific guidelines that experts, quasi-experts, and definite non-experts will throw out there as bonafide facts when it comes to cellaring beer. Some people have scoured all the applicable how-to articles, others have spent years amassing vast and impressive bottle collections in their closets. The truth is, there are too many variables to monitor when it comes to aging beer, both on the part of the brewer and the 'cellar master', to designate a holy grail approach. Should you choose to accept the challenge of cellaring beer, know that the road is relatively uncharted, the rules are flexible, and at the end of it all, there will inevitably be duds. Aging beer is a an adventure, and if you can't bear the thought of risk, it might not be your bag. However, without knowing exactly what Nietzsche was ever thinking, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that he HAD TO have been talking about beer when he said, "one must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star". A well aged beer, is most certainly a dancing star. The chaos "in myself" is not something we need to address on this blog...

Alright, so, with that proviso out of the way, we can proceed. If you're still reading, you've chosen to accept The Beer Cellaring Mission. Welcome. Let's get down to the rules humble opinions:

- The three most important aspects you'll want to consider when cellaring beer are darkness (hops are light sensitive, remember!), coolness (not figuratively), and consistency (this one refers to temperatures). Heat and light can really accelerate some of the less desirable aging processes.

- Buy in multiples! It sounds so simple to say, but lots of people will only grab one precious bottle of a beer they've been pining over for ages. Part of aging is the comparison between a young and old beer, so you're going to want to try the beers you age, fresh as well. To be honest, and this is purely for the greater goals of research, you should probably be tasting testing your cellared beers at regular intervals (example: fresh, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, etc.).

- It's not as footloose and fancy free, but if you're already on the path to cellaring insanity, you should keep some sort of system of organization. Some people really like Cellar HQ, others keep a journal. At the very least, you should tag or mark each bottle with the date they went into the cellar.

- When it comes to the upright vs. on the side debate we suggest upright storage. Some people worry about corks drying out and oxidized flavours intensifying, but then you're getting into ideal humidity conditions (50-70% say the sources) and a one-way ticket to falling down the rabbit hole. Store your bottles upright so that the corks can't impart any 'musty' flavours, and more importantly, so that your yeast settles out and you can properly decant that (potentially) chunky monster.

- Don't make any bottle too precious. If every 3 year old bottle you have is only fit for the birth of a king or the end of the world, you're not going to enjoy yourself much. Instead find occasions to savour the fruits of your labour (example, "Hey! it's Tuesday!")

- When you do finally deem it a perfect time to crack open a special bottle, serve it at the same temperature (we'll get into specifics below) that it was cellared at.

- Key words that tend to designate potential in a cellar are: bottle-conditioned, barrel-aged, brettanomyces, and vintage, to name a few.

- The oldest beers are not always the best. Brettanomyces, for example, may function at a slow and steady pace throughout the aging process, where as Lactobacillus might start working at a bit of delay, but more aggressively, and then stop abruptly. The flavours in your beer will vary greatly depending on when in its lifespan you decide to open it.

- Some brewers will print a best before date right on the bottle. That doesn't necessarily mean it's best on that date.

- Coolers and closets are a good basic fix. Temperature controlled mini-fridges are better.

With some tips covered, we'll break down our suggested temperature guidelines into two groups:

1) In It For The Long Haul (Lambics, Gueuzes, Imperial Stouts, Barley Wines, Sours, Brett beers): This wide variety of beers are suited to 'cellar temperature' which is a little cooler than room temp without being cold (10-13˚C).

2) Spring Chickens (Pretty much everything else, including IPAs, lagers, and low-alcohol beers): Don't age, drink fresh! Store in the fridge (7-10˚C).

You might notice that a third temperature is unaccounted for here. Most sources will say that imperial stouts and barleywines are resilient enough for room temp (13-16˚C), but we agree any beer benefits from cellar over room, so we've omitted it in this biased guide. For our (Bellwoods) barrel-aged and bottle-conditioned ageables, we always suggest cellar temp across the board. This is where discretion comes in, but generally autolysis (when yeast cells explode, which can be caused by many factors) is less likely at cellar temp. It's just a safer bet and can reduce the development of non-oxidative off flavours that may result from aging.

Chances are, if you've made it this far into the blog post then I'm probably preaching to the choir, but some of you may be wondering why anyone would even take on this sort of a project. I don't have an arsenal of answers, but ask yourself, why does anyone do anything? Cellaring beers can round out the bitterness in a barley wine or bring fruity field berry notes to the forefront of an imperial stout. It can mellow a gueuze, make a saison really nice and dry, or calm alcohol heat. It's an experiment with an alcoholic treat at the end of the rainbow, and that's more than you can say for marathon running or bonsai cultivation. Aging beers is an experiment in intuition, and the results can be very rewarding -- our real advice is just to have fun, make informed decisions, and don't take the whole shebang too seriously.

cellaring beer
cellaring beer