Marketing Ploy or Legitimate Technique?
The question remains whether the atmosphere of a cave cannot be effectively duplicated in the brewery in temperature-controlled tanks―or in the case of bottles, room storage. Lynn Kruger, director of the Siebel Institute of Brewing, believes that tanks work as well or better. “There is no real difference between cold storage and cave storage as far as the beer is concerned,” she says. “It really depends on the type of vessel, the temperature, and the length of time. But cave aging is more romantic, and might be more practical for some breweries, because it is cheaper.”
Steve Parkes, head of the American Brewers Guild at the University of California at Davis, agrees. “Personally, I wouldn’t think that it would make a difference,” he says. “The nature of the atmosphere in the storage room, cave, or whatever is important in aging Scotch whisky, but not beer. If the tanks or barrels were made of wood, then it could be a factor.”
Parkes recalls one of the “urban beer legends” he knows related to caves. “There’s a story of a guy drilling a well somewhere in Germany and striking beer instead of water,” he laughs. “Since virtually all beer was cellared underground it the past, it could have happened.”
Even though the Katl-Loch Brauerei has caves, former brewmaster Peter Kehl thinks temperature-controlled tank storage is better for the brewery’s lagers. “You can reach a lower temperature than in the caves Low temperatures are the most effective prevention against the rise of bacteria in the beer,” he believes.
The Future of Cave Beer
While there seems to be some evidence that cave aging can create more flavor complexity in some beers, the process may be more trouble than it’s worth for most craft brewers. Suitable caves are not common to most brewing regions, and, until recently, none in North America were still used for aging beer. Underground cellars do exist in older breweries like Miller Brewing in Milwaukee.
Ironically, what was a once a simple and cheap means of storing and conditioning beer in the Old World might be more difficult and expensive to replicate here, if caves have to be dug in areas with strict land-use laws. Still, breweries located near natural caverns might wish to experiment with specialty beers like strong ales or barley wines that are meant to be laid down.
In Plato’s Parable of the Cave, mankind is seen as cut off from true knowledge, huddled in his grotto, and experiencing enlightenment only when he emerges from the cavern. When it comes to beer, that process might well be reversed―we could learn more by going back inside.