It is almost quotidian that wine can be cellared. ”Bring out the bottle of ’58 Merlot.” Or whatever wine lovers may say. Wine has long been cellared by the wealthy, but even the average (and occasional) wine drinker has a bottle or two sitting around the house. But once again, wine’s ugly cousin beer has not gotten its due attention. So, I’m intentionally writing in the hopes of alleviating this dastardly plot to oppress beer.
Let me tell you that cellaring good beer is much cheaper than cellaring good wine. Wine’s reputation precedes it, so wine prices are more expensive. Much of the difference in prices can be attributed to historical and gastronomical snobbery. Climate also has a role to play, but this is a pretty advantageous situation for beer drinkers because we know that beer is actually better and more complex than wine, so we are content to be snobby about it in our own way. Plus, we end up having to spend far less for beer than the wine aficionado.
Our current culture of more bang for your buck can really play into our hands. I’m not going to play the game of “Why should I spend $10-15 for a beer?” I intend to make the case for spending decent money on good beer elsewhere. But let me say that a 750 ml of really good beer that is 8 or 9% ABV can be bought at the same price as an average Riesling of the same ABV (and with far more complexity and flavor). Enough said for now about the price of beer. Now that you are convinced that you need to cellar some beer, what should you do?
There are four things that lead to being able to cellar a beer well: alcohol, grain, hops, and temps.
Higher alcohol levels have a tendency to store better. Just consider the process of distilling. Basically, alcohol is extracted and organic matter is eliminated. Nothing that can live or die will be left. Except for evaporation, a distilled product will last indefinitely. So, the higher alcohol that is in a beer the higher probability there is that it will last longer (although this does not mean that it has less organic matter).
Two: Grain Content
The darker the grain, the longer the possible shelf-life of a beer. Darker grains are more acidic than lighter ones, so if the beer is made from darker grains you might be in luck. Warning: Some beers use coloring that does not add life to the beer like the grains do. They tend to add the color rather than the more “offensive” roast/burnt taste imparted by darker grains. So be sure that coloring wasn’t added to your beer if you plan on cellaring.
Three: Hop Content
Hops are full of acids that can be used for bittering, aroma, and flavor. Hops come through one of two ways. They either bitter or give aroma and taste. So, a beer with tons of hop aroma and taste or a really bitter beer could have a considerable amount of hops. The best thing to do is to find out what the level of hops in a beer is. Usually, you can find out what the IBU (international bittering units) in a beer is. The higher the level of IBUs, the higher the hop level. Wheat beer, which is not a very hoppy style, tends to be as low as 20 IBUs. Big IPAs can be 70, 80, or higher. The reason that hops keep a beer longer is that the acids found in hops contribute to preserving the shelf life of a beer.
Four: Storage situation
I don’t actually have a cellar to store my beer. What I do is use a refrigerator that is set at about 50 degrees, i.e., cellar temps. If you don’t have either of these, you have to find the coolest (and darkest) place that you can. Too much light is bad for beer, especially those in lighter bottles. The other thing to consider is storage temperature changes. Find a place that doesn’t have great swings; this will also be bad for the beer.
Concluding remarks. Beer can change wonderfully over time because it is a living product (or dying, depending on how you look at it). I’ve enjoyed multiple beers that I’ve aged for five years. What should you expect over the aging life of a beer? Beers tend to become sweeter, less disparate (they blend), and more subdued. I’ve had beers that started out very hoppy become wonderfully ciderish. The only way to find out what your beer will do over time is to try this for yourself. As a rule, I don’t tend to age beers that are under 6% for more than two or three years. Of course, it depends on the aforementioned factors. Beers that are 7% or higher, I do for about 5 years. But I have beers that I’m trying to do for 20 or so. There is not really a rule of thumb, but beers between 7%-9%, you could use a correspondence method. 7% for seven years (with all things considered). Beers 10% or above could go for ten or more. The minimum I would go is 2 or 3 years…but longer time will keep them changing. Cheers!
And don’t forget to keep a good list so you know your dates.
Thanks for this Mike. I’ve been wondering about some thoughts on cellaring lately.
Good post. I’ve actually got a basement where I keep by beers until they’re ready to go. As you know, I’ve got one beer that I’m planning on keeping down there (control group) for 5 years while I have the other for enjoying sooner (experimental group). Or do I have my experiment groups backwards???
Anyway, I’m looking forward to having them both, but I wonder if I’ll be able to tell the difference in taste after so much time?
I’m probably over thinking again!
Your welcome. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time but time is not always on our side.
I think that you will notice a difference. If I’m cellaring a beer, I always by another to taste that day, week, or month. If you’re sure that a beer or company is going to be around for 5-10 years, a good way to see the differences is to buy a fresh bottle and drink it beside your aged one. Otherwise, good tasting notes are key. The other thing to think about is whether it’s a variable recipe. In the case of Bourbon County Stout (I’m assuming that’s what you mean specifically), the 2006 is 2% ABV different from the 2008. It may be the same recipe but the barrels may be different. A really good example is Fuller’s Vintage Ale. The recipe and the amount they make are different every years, so you have to rely on notes. Experimenting is the fun part.
I’ll admit, I never would have started cellaring beer had it not been for our discussions in the past Mike!
This was a great informative article.
Scott..what is your control beer…is it tom hardy’s? I forgot.
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