The concept of a wine cellar is well understood, even by people who don’t drink wine. Since the flavor of many wines improves with age, having an appropriate place to store the treasures of the grape is a practical necessity for wine lovers.
Although a candlelit subterranean chamber lined with vintage bottles may be romantically appealing, a beer cellar doesn’t have to be anything fancy.
But beer, it’s often assumed, needs no such respect. Keep it cold and serve it as soon as possible. Most beer lovers believe that the fresher beer is consumed, the better it tastes.
The truth is that freshness is something of a moving target. To be truly fresh, beer must be ready to drink, meaning that it has been given proper conditioning time in the brewing process—which could be anywhere from a week or so for some light ales to three months or more for strong lagers. Once the brewery releases the beer, all kinds of problems in maintaining good flavor can occur—in storing, shipping, selling and serving the beer. Beer could be stored too warm stacked up at the supermarket at room temperature; it could be shaken violently during shipping; it might be exposed to extremes of light, heat or cold; and finally, it could be served through dirty tap lines or in dirty glasses. It’s cause for celebration when any beer emerges from this gauntlet tasting fresh!
Yet freshness ought not to be the consumer’s only concern about the quality of beer. Many of the world’s best beers are not meant to be drunk as soon as they are released from the brewery. Like wine, they are designed to be aged, and they develop far more complexity if allowed to do so.
I’ll never forget the first time I visited the inn at the Abbey de Scourmont in Belgium, where the Trappist ales from the nearby Chimay brewery are served. On the beer menu was the current release of Chimay Grande Reserve (capsule bleu), the strongest and most flavorful Chimay beer. The beer was very good, but a 3-year-old version of the same brew was also available. Tasting the two side by side, I was astonished how much more depth of flavor the older beer has acquired during its time in the inn’s cellar.
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.
Let There (Not) Be Light
We all talk about seeing the light, but your beer shouldn’t—not until it reaches your drinking glass. Light-struck beers have a distinctly unpleasant skunky (sometimes called catty) smell. Beer drinkers sometimes confuse this with the sulfurous aromas common in many European lagers, but they are very different. Researchers have discovered that the smell of light-stuck beer comes from the degradation of hop oils in beer, so you might think that beers that are low in hops, like mass-produced light lagers, wouldn’t be affected. They are, of course, but not as dramatically as more flavorful craft beers.
Brown or dark-colored glass bottles afford some barrier against the evils of daylight, but they won’t cancel out the effects of strong light—whether from incandescent or fluorescent sources. (Incandescent light also produces significant heat to be wary of.) A dark cellar provides more protection. Even then, it pays to be careful. I have one low-wattage fluorescent light in my own beer cellar, mostly to keep me from tripping over the cases scattered on the floor, but I keep it shaded at all times.
Beer Wasn’t Born to Move
In our increasingly mobile society, we often lose tract of the fact that some things are better disturbed as little as possible. Once your have stored your beer in your cellar, it shouldn’t have to be moved until the moment you drink it.
Why does movement hurt beer? Just as with sparkling wine, vibration can damage the flavor of your beer by causing it to over-carbonate. Bottle-conditioned beers, in particular, are subject to damage when suspensions of dead yeast cells and their autolyzed aromas and flavors are not allowed to settle out on the bottom of the bottle.
When it comes time to serve these beers, by the way, they need to be carefully decanted. I remember once at a Belgian beer dinner that ignorant servers poured a wonderful 5-year-old ale from small bottles, constantly tipping the bottles to fill each glass. The beer looked (and tasted) very different, depending upon how much yeast residue you received in your glass.
Setting Up Your Cellar
To reiterate, you will need a cool, dark place to store your beer. A closet, storage cabinet or locker will all work well. An underground basement is ideal—as long as the beer is not too close to a washer and dryer or to a furnace. The ideal temperature is between 50 to 60 degrees F for long-term storage. I put my “vintage” beers on shelves along with my wines at 55 degrees F year round. Remember that beer in bigger bottles will age slower, so smaller bottles should be in the coolest spot, usually meaning the bottom shelf.
In very hot climates such as southern California or the Southwest, it may be necessary to put everything in a fridge (set at around 50 degrees F) or buy a beer- or wine-cooling unit available now from several manufacturers (see sidebar). Good vintage beer, like wine, is an investment. It’s worth the money to protect that investment for the years of enjoyment it can provide.
If you have a spare fridge handy, use it for beer only and set it no colder than 40 degrees F. (I prefer 45 degrees, the perfect temperature for serving most lagers). Lighter ales—summer beers, kirsch, weiss or wheat beers—should also be refrigerated. The exceptions are bottle-conditioned lambics, which can suffer if they are kept too cold.
Beer Rotation (and Notation)
Once you start to accumulate a fair number of bottles, it becomes a logistical exercise to keep them arranged so that you can find the right beer when it’s the right time to drink it. I recommend keeping a running list of the beers you have and when they should be drunk. Lighter or hoppier ales and lagers should be consumed first, then maltier, stronger, spiced or smoked beers (see sidebar for some more cellaring suggestions for individual beers).
I’d also suggest rotating your cellared brews regularly to upper shelves so that (in a kind of reverse solera system) you drink the “top” beers. Just make sure that you allow a week or so after they’re moved so the yeast can settle after being so rudely disturbed.
Try to collect more than one bottle of every beer. Maintaining a full case each of many different beers isn’t practical, but at least two bottles of each will guarantee you the joy of comparing its taste as it ages. It’s frustrating to find that the only bottle you had of a certain beer was opened too soon or too late—especially if it’s a 3-liter bottle.
It’s also a great idea to keep a log of your beer inventory—either by style (barley wines, Trappist ales, etc.) or producer. You should enter the date of purchase or vintage year, and where you bought it. Ideally, keep tasting notes in your log as well to track the flavors of the brews and how they change over time.
This can be difficult to do, depending upon the size of your cellar. I have hundreds of bottles, and I’m always forgetting to note where they are (especially in the dark!). But if you can keep your log handy (mine is actually in the cellar, and I’ve even lost that!), keeping track of the beer is much easier.
If you’re storing beer in cases, attach your own clearly readable labels to them. It’s amazing how similar a stack of cardboard boxes can look in low light, and it’s a tedious chore to dig through a number of cases to find the beer you’re looking for.
Some Advice on Corked Beers
Even though we now talk about “laying down” beer as we would wine, it’s not a good idea to lay corked bottles, such as many Belgian ales, on their sides. This will spread the yeast around in the bottle and expose it to more air within—a nice technique for bottle fermentation, but not for storage of finished beer. Corks will dry out and shrink in beer bottles as well as wine bottles, potentially damaging the brew inside, but the presence of anaerobic carbon dioxide in the bottle usually makes up for the inadequacies of the cork.
Keeping those bottles upright means that the yeast and its residue will settle out nicely to the bottom, where it will remain when the beer is poured. Some beer lovers really like the flavors of old bottle yeast, but I have had some disturbing gastrointestinal battles in my own internal “cellar” from consuming such wonders. When the yeast has done its job, let it rest in peace.
From the Cellar to the Glass
For me there’s almost nothing more frustrating than drinking a bad glass of beer—and I mean glass. Anyone with a decent beer cellar should also stock a good range of beer glasses appropriate for different styles of beer. You owe it to yourself, after keeping those precious brews so long in hiding for the right moment, to enjoy them as they were meant to be enjoyed—at the right temperature and in the right glass.
As my career has moved from wine to beer, I’ve noticed many parallels between the two beverages. Sometimes, however, the appreciation of beer and wine seems to be moving in opposite directions. Nowadays, many wines, even big cabernets, are made in a “fruit forward” style—meant to be consumed the moment they are released. By contrast, more beers are cropping up that are meant to be aged. The best strategy in my book is to collect beer (and wine) for now and for later. With a good beer cellar, that’s exactly what you’ll have.