How To Build Your Own Beer Cellar
May I interest you in a Westvleteren 12º ’86? Dive into the world of vintage beer.
Most beer tastes best when it’s fresh. But some beers grow more complex with time. For some beer lovers, tracking down these unusual beers, then tending them into their maturity, opens up new flavor experiences.
So, you are one of these people and you want to build your very own beer cellar. Where do you start? No, not with a shovel. By “beer cellar,” I mean a collection of rare beers that improve with age and a suitable place in which to store them.
A cellar or basement is ideal. The temperature in your storage area should be about 45 to 60 degrees F, optimally in the 50 to 55 degree range. It should also be dark. One of the most important factors in cellaring beer is to store your bottles away from sunlight or other bright light, particularly fluorescent light.
What gives some beers their aging potential? Higher alcohol content is one of the primary factors. Alcohol is a preservative, so stronger beers, such as Samichlaus (14 percent alcohol by volume) and Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout (18 percent abv) will stand the test of time much more gracefully than beers with less alcohol. Another very important factor is bottle conditioning. This process leaves live yeast in a beer so it will continue to age and develop over time.
Malt and hops also play a role. Malts must be used in much larger amounts in very strong beers to balance the high alcohol, and this gives a lot of body to such beers. Hops are a preservative, like alcohol, so high hopping rates will contribute to a beer’s aging well.
But it is not only higher alcohol brews that are suitable for aging. Belgian lambic beers such as Cantillon Gueze and Boon Kriek Marriage Parfait can be very good with 10 or even 20 years of cellaring. Their alcohol levels are moderate, usually in the 5 to 6.5 percent abv range.
Barley wine is another style of beer that is well suited to cellaring, with alcohol typically ranging from about 9 to 12 percent abv. A couple of American examples include Bridgeport Old Knucklehead and Victory Old Horizontal.
Belgian (and Belgian-style) strong ales are among the top beer styles for aging. Tripels, Christmas beers, and abbey style beers like Ommegang can benefit from cellaring. The Trappist brews, such as Rochefort or Westvleteren, are good choices. Victory Brewing’s Golden Monkey Tripel and their new V-10 beer, a strong, dark brew, should be good examples of American-brewed Belgian-style ales suitable for aging.
Old ales, such as Thomas Hardy’s and Lee’s Harvest Ale, both from England, are great beers for cellaring. Another style that is more common in the United States is Imperial stout. American versions include Bell’s Expedition Stout from Kalamazoo (MI) and Old Rasputin Imperial Stout from North Coast (CA).
Less common brews that will improve with age are strong Baltic porters, such as Sinebrychoff Porter from Finland and Okocim Porter from Poland. A US-brewed example is Perkuno’s Hammer from Heavyweight Brewing in New Jersey.
Eisbocks, such as Kulmbacher Reichelbrau Bayrisch G’frorns and Aventinus Weizen Eisbock, should be prime candidates for cellaring, with their extremely malty character and higher alcohols.
Now that you have an idea of what styles of beer will age well, where do you buy your beer? This will all depend on where you live. If you are lucky enough to have a good local beer retailer, let him/her know of your interest. Internet sites like www.beertravelers.com also list stores with good selections. Posting a question on the various beer newsgroups on the web often will achieve results.
And how much do you buy? This depends on how much you like the beer, how much you drink, and how much you want to have for the future. If a particular beer is released annually—as is the practice for barley wines, for example—you may want to buy enough to have a bottle a year for many years. With several vintages aging in your cellar, you can plan a “vertical tasting,” comparing several vintages each year to see the different effects of aging.
Having a cellar at home is a real pleasure—you can break out a great beer whenever the mood hits, as you are already prepared!