How a Beer Cellar Can Improve Your Beer
For the beverage enthusiast, keeping a beer cellar is every bit as important as a cellar for wine. What, then, is a beer cellar? Basically, it’s a cool (not cold), dark, stable environment where your beer can remain undisturbed until you drink it. Although a candlelit subterranean chamber lined with vintage bottles may be romantically appealing, a beer cellar doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It could be a basement, an insulated closet, or even an old refrigerator or two. Building your own “best cellar” will allow you to keep beers for months or even years in perfect condition, whether you have a crisp pilsner or a barrel-aged barley wine.
Before you build your best cellar, however, it’s important to understand the dynamics of this magical liquid that allow it to age—and also to spoil.
Beer, like wine, is a perishable product. The same forces that shape its taste—yeast, malt, and hops—are also the creatures of its demise. Put together into beer, they gain new life, but not immortality. As an organic ingredient, yeast can naturally mutate and/or acquire bacteriological infections; malt will oxidize and become stale and musty; likewise, hops will lose their aroma and bittering capabilities over time and develop a cheesy or litter box smell. Alcohol and carbon dioxide provide some protection against beer deterioration but not enough to protect beer freshness for long.
Three major factors must be controlled if beer is to age properly: temperature, light and vibration. With a beer cellar, you can keep all of these in check in order to get the most from your beer.
Don’t Lose Your Cool with Your Brew
“The greatest enemy of beer is temperature,” proclaimed Adolphus Busch, co-founder of Anheuser-Busch in the steamy city of St. Louis, MO. Busch designed refrigerated trucks and railcars to carry his Budweiser beer and insisted that his product always be kept cold. He always claimed this commitment as a reason for his brewery’s success.
In the days before refrigeration, brewers had to resort to the insulating properties of the Earth, using caves and underground cellars both to brew beer and to keep it cool and fresh during the summer. The term “cellar” itself comes from the German word keller, meaning an underground storage facility. In France, this was known as a cave, and virtually every household had one for food as well as wine.
Why are warm temperatures bad for beer? After beer is bottled or kegged, it contains carbon dioxide gas, which acts as a preservative (and also produces a nice head when beer is poured). CO2 remains in solution at colder temperatures, below 50 degrees F or so, but is released as the beer warms. When warm beer is opened, CO2 dissipates quickly, causing the brew to foam out and then go flat.
If there is yeast in the beer, as in bottle-conditioned brews, warm temperatures can produce real gushers—all of the beer can explode out of the bottle (or sometimes explode the bottle, too). Whatever remains will likely contain dead yeast cells and sediment that’s unpleasant to drink.
High temperatures also cause oxidation of malt flavors, resulting in a cooked or bitter vegetable taste. Heat degrades hop aroma as well, accentuating hop bitterness. Very cold temperatures, on the other hand, can damage bottle-conditioned beers; yeast is a living organism and its quality can rapidly decline in frigid conditions.
With a good beer cellar, you can avoid these too-warm or too-cold beer blues by maintaining the proper storage temperature for different styles of beer. And when it’s serving time, your beer will already be at the right temperature. You won’t need to move it back and forth from refrigerator to table, and worry about it getting too warm or too cold in the process.
With a beer cellar, you’ll also avoid the mistake of trying to chill your beer too rapidly before serving it. If, like me, you’ve ever forgotten about beer you put in the freezer to cool down quickly, you know the result—the modest amount of alcohol beer contains will not protect it from sub-freezing temperatures. Making beer slush (often mixed with broken glass) is not something you should try at home.
Another effect of over-chilling is loss of carbonation. CO2 in the bottle is increasingly absorbed in solution as it gets colder, to the point where the beer may have little to no carbonation once the bottle is opened. Even champagne, with all its effervescence, can be over-chilled. I once carried a bottle of bubbly to the top of a glaciated volcano in Washington’s Cascade Mountains and shoved it into the ice on the summit. When I released the cork, the bottle opened with a whimper and not a pop. Keeping your beer cellared at the right temperature will avoid the wimpy beer syndrome.