This week, I am going to refute my own statement and talk about aging beer.
Before we get too far down this path, though, it’s important to note that there are some beer styles, most, actually, that you really should never try to cellar or “lay down” to use the vine-nacular given to us by wine folks (vernacular + vine for wine = vine-nacular. Get it?) We will get to more on that in a bit. For now, a bit of background.
Why Cellar Beers?
Just like wines and some distilled spirits, some beers can really change and even improve with age. It certainly is an interesting experiment to sample a fresh version of a beer and then subsequent years’ versions of the same beer if the bottles have been taken care of in a cool, dark environment. In the “vertical tastings,” you can taste for yourself from year to year how time has changed the beer, mellowing out some flavors while bringing others to the forefront.
How to Cellar Beers
You don’t need to have a fancy cellar to age beers, but it is best to keep it someplace dark (light is a beer killer) and relatively cool. Extreme temperatures are hard on beer, so try to keep the beer from getting too hot or too cold.
There are two schools of thought on whether to store the beers standing upright or laying down, like they do with wine. I tend to store them upright. I often use the boxes the beers come in, which tends to insulate the beer from temperature fluctuations, makes it easy to identify the beers in the box and also keeps more light out. But I do understand the logic behind laying down, especially, bottles that are corked — as they do with wine — because the liquid can create a better seal and the cork often imparts some interesting flavors in the beer. My suggestion: Take into consideration any constraints you might have (space, light, temperature, etc.) and, if you still aren’t sure which way to go, try a few both ways. That could make for an interesting twist on the classic vertical tasting!
What Beers to Cellar
Here are a few key words (and letters) that can help you decide whether that beer in your hand is drinkable now or could be cellared:
ABV: The percentage of alcohol by volume can make a big difference in how a beer ages. Generally, the higher the ABV, the higher the chance that the beer will age well. Why? Because alcohol doesn’t spoil. Anything 9-10 percent ABV will be a good candidate. Anything 5 percent or below probably won’t be. Anything in-between? You might want to consider some of the other factors before deciding whether the beer gets the cellar treatment.
IBU: Hops are a natural preservative. That’s why an enterprising Brit added more hops to his beers that he was shipping to the guys colonizing India. The hops, along with a slightly higher alcohol content, meant that his pale ales could weather the rough seas and temperature fluctuations on the boat better than the other beers. And a new style, India Pale Ale, was born. IBUs, or International Bittering Units, are a standard that gives you a general idea of how hoppy a beer is. The higher the IBUs, the better chance a beer has at cellaring well.
Bottle Conditioning: That means yeast is still in the bottle, and those little Pacmanesque critters will still be workin’ on that beer. A bottle-conditioned beer is alive, always changing. A pasteurized beer, not so much.Smoke: It might get in your eyes, but when it gets in your beer, it has a good chance of creating some interesting nuances when cellared.
Brett: As in brettanomyces bruxellensis (brett for short), a strain of yeast that is often used in Belgian beers. Belgians often cellar their beers for years. ‘Nuff said.
The Best Advice
So, you’ve found yourself a space to try cellaring some beer. And you even have a few beers to start out with. Now what?
Well, you have to practice some patience. Aging doesn’t happen overnight. But the other side of that coin is you don’t want to just stick the beers down there and forget about them, either. You actually have to be an active cellar-person and do some tasting every once in a while to keep on top of how the beers are tasting because they can head south pretty quickly if you’re not paying attention.
Following My Own Best Advice
My husband, Mark, and I, are definitely beer hoarders. We don’t mean to be, but we get excited about a beer, collect some to drink now and, if they fit the profile, some for later dates. But it seems like those later dates never come and we are on to the next great beer.[We determined a few weeks ago that our cellar was getting a bit out of control, so we decided to host a “Drink the Cellar” event to help us tackle some of those beers.
The general “house rules” were the bottles were meant to be shared, so only “tasters” were allowed. And if there were verticals of any beer, those should be tasted in some sort of order. Sheets of paper for tasting notes were provided for people who wanted to add comments.
One of the highlights was a Hair of the Dog Adam #2 (brewed in 1994). It was a bit past its prime, according to the tasters, but really exhibited a lot of smokiness and was thinner in texture than a fresh Adam. But it held up amazingly well, considering it’s 15 years old.
In all, it was a great time, but not nearly enough beers were enjoyed, which prompted us to talk about having another “Drink the Cellar” event in the near future. And a bunch of our guests decided it might be a good idea to form a tasting club where we meet monthly to actually sit down and appreciate those beers we have been lovingly cellaring for so long.
What a great way to celebrate the cellar beers!
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