Old and Out-of-the-Way
Or everything you ever wanted to know about beer cellars but were afraid to ask.
While nobody knows the exact percentage, nearly all of the beer brewed worldwide should be enjoyed when it’s as fresh as possible. With most beer, the sooner you drink it, the better; usually within ninety days of being kegged, bottled or canned if it’s unpasteurized, and a little longer if it has. Many beers even tell you right on the label, six-pack carrier or carton the date by which you should drink your beer. Believe them.
Beer is surprisingly delicate and never stops changing and evolving from the beginning of the brewing process right through to your first sip. Even so, for all but a very few beers, time is the enemy. Like a new car driving off the dealer’s lot, most beer will never be better than when it has that new beer smell… and taste!
So Why Bother?
The reason some beers should be set aside and aged is that like a fine wine or whisky, the experience of drinking an aged beer is enhanced because of the changes that occur during the aging process. For these few beers, the aging actually improves their flavors and adds complexity and other intangible qualities that can be achieved only over time. Many of these beers soften with time, rough edges are smoothed out and the beer becomes mellower with aging.
Some styles of beer fairly cry out to be aged. Many experts believe, for example, that a barley wine isn’t ready to drink until it’s at least one year old. The same could be said for other stronger styles, too, such as imperial stouts or Belgian strong dark ales, both of which improve greatly with time.
And despite its delicate nature, some beers can withstand the rigors of time and improve for as long as decades and even centuries. A few years ago, Coors Brewing, after taking over the former Bass Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, England, discovered some very old beer in the vaults of the Worthington’s White Shield brewery. The forgotten stash contained beer that was 130 years old, some of it from 1896. Most of the bottles still had their corks intact and, perhaps more surprisingly, when tasted, were found to “taste so fresh, and with [very] attractive ripe plum and honeyed flavours.” One of the people lucky enough to try the 1896 beer, Dr George Philliskirk, Chief Executive of the Beer Academy, noted. “This demonstrates the potential for vintage beers to be taken seriously—maybe even being worthy of a special section in wine lists at Britain’s top restaurants.”
Another great reason to cellar beer is so that you can do a vertical tasting of the same beer from different years. This is especially fun to do with beers that are dated with a year or vintage. For example, each year put away a few bottles of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and ten years later you can taste how the beer changed over the previous decade, one year at a time. Whenever you buy a beer that you’re planning on aging, buy at least two bottles: one to put in your beer cellar and another to drink right now. Take notes on how the young beer tasted, so that you compare the two when it comes time to open the vintage bottle.
The Right Stuff
So while the total amount of beer that can be aged is still small, the number of different beers is growing, with more and more breweries making special beers ripe for being aged, leading to more and more beer lovers building beer cellars of their very own to accommodate them. The more you can do to store your beer in the proper setting, the better the results will be when you finally decide to open a bottle you’ve been aging. In a sense it’s like nurturing a child. You want to do everything you can now to raise them right, so that by the time they’re ready to come out of the bottle and live on their own in your glass, they’ve had the perfect upbringing to properly mature them.
A beer cellar sounds fancy—and expensive—but it doesn’t have to be. Really, all you need is an out-of-the-way place wherever you live that either has the right conditions naturally or is isolated enough that they can be imposed.
The ideal beer cellar is a place that’s naturally cool and fairly dry. It’s doesn’t have to be bone dry—you want some moisture, as we’ll see—but never too much. An overly humid environment can encourage the growth of mold, which, as you might expect, should be avoided.
Heat, too, is an enemy of beer. The ideal cellar temperature is somewhere between 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit—with 55-60 being the sweet spot. That’s the temperature that most British cask beer is kept at, and it’s also why UK beer is so unfairly criticized as being served warm. It is, of course, warmer than the ice-cold, near freezing, temperature that so many mainstream beer ads tout as the ideal; but that’s a myth. If you drink a beer ice cold, it actually will numb your taste buds to the point where you can’t actually taste all of the flavors of the beer. That may be fine after mowing the lawn, but for most craft beer, the goal is taste as much of the flavors that the beer has to offer as you can. And that means keeping it and serving it at the proper temperature—cellar temperature.
Perhaps more important than a cool temperature, is insuring that fluctuations are kept to a minimum. A swing of a few degrees here or there won’t harm your beer, but when you’ve got twenty-degree shifts or more in either direction you’re risking the integrity of the beer. The more that happens, the greater the likelihood the beer will be ruined. The best beer cellars can keep the temperature the same year-round. Even a slightly higher, but stable, steady temperature is preferable to a cooler one if it swings frequently from hot to cold, and back again.
The third enemy of beer is light, specifically UV rays. Keeping your beer away from windows and in the dark also retards the breakdown of hop components that turn the beer skunky, technically known as “lightstruck.” Brown glass is best, but as long as it never bathes in the glow of the sun or even an electric light bulb—and never fluorescent lighting—the beer should remain intact. Consider a dimmer switch, if you have that option, or use low-watt bulbs where possible.
In the Closet
One of the most popular rooms in the house for a beer cellar is one you may have overlooked: the closet. Depending on your home’s layout, interior closets are often idea: they’re already dark and if they’re not near windows or an exterior wall, they most likely have a stable temperature, fluctuating just a few degrees throughout the year. Stick a thermometer inside and check it every few weeks for a year. If it maintains a relatively stable temperature, look no further.
One of the most unique beer cellars ever constructed is in what was once a working goldmine. Danny Williams, who works with the Brewers Association, bought a parcel of land near Boulder, CO, to make his home. The property was also home to a former goldmine, located in a tunnel dug 3,000 feet into the side of a mountain. Williams strung lights down into the mine and turned it into a beer cellar for the nearly 4,000 bottles he’s collected over the years. The tunnel stays a cool 50 degrees all year long and there’s a small stream running through a portion of the mine, keeping the normally dry mountain air slightly humid.
The Up or Down Debate
Experts disagree on whether beer with corks should be stored upright or lying on their side. Some insist that they should be laid on their side, like wine, to keep the cork moist, which will also help keep air from getting in the bottle.
But the majority agree that keeping your beer cellar just slightly humid will provide enough moisture so that the corks won’t dry out.
Upright proponents also point out the added benefit of keeping bottles standing tall also is good for the ullage—the air space between the liquid in the bottle and the cork—which should be kept as small as possible. This reduces the air acting on the beer and slows the oxidation process, which can give the beer a papery or cardboard taste and an overall stale quality. This will happen to every beer eventually, and in some beers it can take a positive form, adding sherry-like or leathery notes, but there’s really no reason to rush the process if you don’t have to.
Yet another advantage to storing beer upright is that the sediment stays in the bottom of the bottle, and out of your glass, when it’s finally time to pour the beer.
The Doctor Is In
William Sysak, know to his friends in the beer world as “Dr. Bill,” has been collecting and cellaring beer for many years. His medical title is honorary, from his years in the Army Medical Corps and later working in hospital emergency rooms. Two years ago he turned pro, and is currently the Beverage Coordinator of Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens near San Diego, CA.
But if anything, he’s not only maintained his home beer cellar, but expanded it. He’s turned almost the entire house into his cellar, using various nooks and crannies rather than one dedicated space. In that way, he explains “I have mini-habitats at different temperatures where I can run experiments and check aging variations” on how different conditions affect the same beer. He identified problem areas in his home and avoided using those spaces, but in some that were on the border—like his hot Southern California garage—he installed insulation to maintain an even temperature year-round. He also bought a large three-door cooler for the garage, but never turns it on since the ambient temperature stays cool enough on its own.
Sysak keeps a steady number in his cellar, somewhere around 2,000 bottles. Some of his most prized bottles waiting for that right moment to open include a 1977 Thomas Hardy Barley Wine, a 1999 Bellevue Selection Lambic Gueuze and forty year old Belgian beers from Affligem and Maredsous.
The Refrigerator Solution
One of the most obvious solutions if you live in a humid or hot, volatile climate is to turn to technology to tame Mother Nature. You could, of course, build a walk-in, like the ones you see in many liquor stores. But that’s needlessly expensive. An old refrigerator, with a slight modification, can easily do the job provided you’re willing to pay the enhanced electric bill. All you need to turn that icebox into a true cellar is a refrigerator thermostat. Originally made for home-lagering, they’re also perfect for keeping your ‘frig at the optimal temperature, too. You simply plug the refrigerator into the thermostat and the thermostat into the wall, which then allows you to set the internal temperature to your exact specifications. You can find these gizmos at most homebrew supply stores or online.
One downside to using a refrigerator is that there’s not much humidity in them—they’re designed to keep food dry—which means they’re not ideal for storing cork-finished beers. If that’s your only solution, try to keep them in your refrigerator only when absolutely necessary, perhaps just during the hottest months.
This author uses several refrigerators set at different temperatures, one around 55 degrees for longer aging, one set colder for lagers and for beers not meant to age for very long, and a third just for guests to avoid one inadvertently opening a prized vintage.
The Rolls Royce of Beer Cellars
Seattle, of course, is one of America’s premiere beer towns, so it’s no surprise that a most amazing private beer cellar can be found there, down an unassuming tree-lined neighborhood street. Matt VandenBerghe founded one of the country’s best beer stores—Bottleworks—and more recently Brouwer’s Café, a similarly amazing beer bar with an emphasis on Belgian cuisine and beer.
VandenBerghe converted the root cellar in his basement into a dedicated beer (and wine) cellar. Root cellars used to be in nearly every home in the days before refrigeration, and were used to store vegetables and other food supplies to keep them from spoiling. Normally, they were dug into the earth to keep a low temperature and steady humidity year round.
VandenBerghe found that under the floorboards was just cold dirt, ideal for starting from scratch. He dug down a little farther, back-filled about 8 inches of gravel, and poured concrete. The walls he lined with stone, installed shelves and put copper on the top of each one, both in an effort to keep the room naturally cool and also to avoid using any artificial or electric methods to control the temperature. Water trickles down one wall to provide natural humidity and keep the cellar from becoming overly dry. You feel as if you’ve stepped back in time, like you’re inside a dark, ancient cave.
A small fountain sits atop a table in the center of the room, purely for aesthetic reasons, and the overall feeling inside the cellar is a calming, Zen like spirituality. It’s a cave of wonders, especially for the beer aficionado, and ultimately feels both modern and ancient at the same time. This feeling is further enhanced by a handcrafted medieval door, a thick wooden piece that tapers to a point at the top, surrounded by stone masonry when closed. It’s a room you want to spend time in … and maybe drink a few beers.
Some of VandenBerghe’s most prized beers include Hair of the Dog Adam, Batch 1, Trappistes Rochefort 10, along with many other Belgian quadrupels, tripels, and lambics.
You’ve Built A Beer Cellar, Now What?
So now you have a dedicated space to age some beer, what should you fill your cellar with? While hardly an exact science, there are a few rules of thumb that should help you avoid having a room full of the beer equivalent of the billionaire’s vinegar. Generally speaking, it’s strong beer that will stand the test of time best. With few exceptions, nothing less than 8 percent ABV is the minimum a beer should be in order to be a solid candidate for aging. Anything below 10 percent ABV should only be aged for a few years, depending on style, and rarely more than five years.
Once you get over the ten percent threshold, however, it’s anybody’s guess and it’s largely on a beer-by-beer basis. The stronger the beer, the better the chances it will hold up for a longer period of time.
Ales generally age far better than lagers, except for the strongest ones. Bottle-conditioned beers, which still contain live yeast, are also good candidates since they continue to condition the beer in the bottle and tend to age rather gracefully as a result.
Ironically, hops were first added to beer over a thousand years ago as a preservative, allowing the beer to last longer, but hoppy beers are generally not good candidates to age in a beer cellar. Most hoppy beers, even double and triple IPAs, are best when the hops taste bright and fresh, that is when the beer is as young as possible. Over time, hop aromas and flavors fade and tend to break down and dissipate, losing much of the fresh qualities that make them so desirable.
Sour beers are something of an exception to the strength rule of thumb. Even lower alcohol lambics, for example, will age well for many years, as will Flemish red ales.
The Rarest of the Rare
Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield and no strangers to beer that can be cellared. In addition to founding Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, for the last thirty years they’ve been importing Belgian beer to the U.S. with their import company, Vanburg & Dewulf. Just a few of the beers in their portfolio include the Scaldis line from Brasserie Dubuisson and Saison Dupont along with other beers from Brasserie Dupont.
They’ve recently acquired 185 bottles of a special beer that was never commercially available, a special batch of 1989 DeNeve Gueuze that was blended from eleven different lambics, an unheard of number today. They came from the Constant Vanden stock stores at Belle-Vue, who bought the DeNeve brewery several years ago. The spectacular beer (according to the few who have tasted it) will be sold next year, but only to a lucky few who will be invited to make the trip to Belgium for a three-day weekend, after which each person will be allowed to buy a limited number of the bottles. The plans are still being worked out, but keep an eye on Vanburg & Dewulf’s Facebook page as details emerge. This is a beer that will be at the pinnacle of any exclusive beer cellar.
Waiting Is Such Sweet Sorrow: The Most Important Decision
The hardest question to answer for any beer that’s been aged is when to open it. Wait too long, and it’s ruined, hardly fit for human consumption. Open it too early, and it could be green, having not yet reached its full potential. Call it the Goldilocks dilemma.
It’s best if you can have several bottles of the same vintage to open at different intervals, noting the changes in the flavors, every six months, or from year to year, for example. With rare beers that’s not always possible, or it’s cost prohibitive, but a little experimentation and following some reasonable guidelines about how long certain styles can age will pay dividends and help you avoid the undrinkable.
But hit that sweet spot and you’ll understand in an instant why you put in all the work of building a beer cellar, exercising the Herculean willpower necessary to patiently wait and not open the beer too soon. You’ll taste a beer like no other; with flavors you may later believe were only imagined, often with layers like an ever-loving gobstopper that constantly change as the beer slowly warms in your glass. A good beer cellar is your personal incubator for some of the best beer experiences you’re likely to ever have. Find or make a space with the ideal conditions, add some of the finest beers ever brewed … and wait.
Jay R. Brooks
Jay R. Brooks has been writing about beer for 20 years and enjoying it far longer. He currently writes a syndicated newspaper column, Brooks on Beer, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications. Online, he can be found drinking and rambling at his idiosyncratic Brookston Beer Bulletin from his home in Marin County, California.