As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. When it comes to beer, this is more the exception than the rule. The overwhelming majority of beers are designed to be enjoyed fresh, consumed as close as possible to the moment they enter the bottle, can, or keg. Hence the prevalence of born on and expiration dates on labels. But within a notable subsegment of brew styles, aging helps transform a beer into something debatably better than what was initially bottled. So give it a try. And don’t be put off by the term, itself; cellaring hardly requires an actual cellar. In fact, the back of a closet is a far more common setting these days. Below, the key components to properly home-cellar beer.
Virtually the only universal rule of aging: keep IPAs, or any other hop-forward beer, out of the cellar.
Hardly anything is accepted with absolute certainty in this world. Yet, even those with merely a passing knowledge of craft beer know you ought not sit on an IPA. The resiny bitterness defining this style comes from alpha acids, and those compounds begin deteriorating immediately after production. So, virtually the only universal rule of aging: keep IPAs, or any other hop-forward beer, out of the cellar. The second most widely-accepted axiom is to age bigger beers — brews that are higher in alcohol and sugar content. "Monster beers can mellow considerably with age," explains Adam Avery, founder and CEO of Avery Brewing Co. His 23 year-old brewery, based in Boulder, Colorado, owes its cult status, in part, to loud offerings ranging from 15-18 percent in alcohol, such as his Uncle Jacob’s Stout, or Rumpkin — a pumpkin ale aged in rum barrels. "Those kinds of beer can handle the aging process," he says. "They don’t get worse."
The same can be said for bottle conditioned beers, wherein active yeast is added after brewing. Consider Vintage, a limited edition strong ale from Innis & Gunn. "The yeast we add to the bottle acts on the sugar in the beer, and provides additional fermentation and maturation," says Neil Sharp, general manager of the Scotland-based craft brewery. "There isn’t really a cutoff for how long you can store Vintage; some bottle conditioned beers will have a shelf life of ten years." A similar phenomenon can be observed with high-alcohol imperial stouts, in which bolder flavors and mouthfeel tend to smooth out after several years.
Much like wine, how well a beer ages depends largely on how well it's cased for while resting. "It’s all about storage," advises Sharp. "I’d recommend storing in a fridge or somewhere cool. It’s all about flavor development and that will happen really slowly, over time, when the beer is kept cool." Avery concurs, "Find the coolest spot in your house, that’s a no-brainer." It’s a bit counterintuitive, though, in that the transformation of the beer is a result of oxidation, which increases with temperature. "But I wouldn’t add heat to try and accelerate the process," warns Avery. Equally as meddlesome is sunlight — UV rays have a disastrous effect on any bottled liquid — and exposure to inconsistent temperatures. If you don’t have a large chunk of designated space in your refrigerator or a basement, seek out the coldest, darkest, and most consistently-regulated environment in your home. Don’t worry about keeping the beer ice cold as much as preventing it from repeatedly going from hot to cold, and back again. The ideal cellar temperature ranges between 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
When to Drink
"I’d buy a case of it and every six months, pop a bottle open for a special occasion."
Now that you’ve landed on the right type of beer to age and the optimal real estate in which to cellar it, one question looms large overhead: When is it actually time to drink this stuff? It’s an historic conundrum that has vexed craft beer’s counterparts in the wine world for generations. If aging is represented as a bell curve, it's vital to pull the product before it begins its inevitable downward plunge. Avery points to strength in numbers. "I’d buy a case of it and every six months, pop a bottle open for a special occasion," he recommends. "As soon as you think it’s not as good as the last time you had it, it’s probably not going to rebound. So that’s when I would drink the rest of those beers." An empirical, if somewhat expensive approach. But rarely is data collection such a delicious exercise.
Ready to start building that home cellar? Sit on this: not all craft brewers support the practice. "Our barrel-aged beers are all packaged and sold when we believe they are ready, and at their peak," asserts Jesse Friedman, co-founder and brewmaster at Almanac Beer Co. in San Francisco. Although his brewery is renowned for styles that would presumably lend themselves to sensational cellaring, he doesn’t like leaving things to chance. "Aging the beer does allow it to evolve," he concedes, "but not always in great ways. It's hard for us to say 'this beer will be at its best in X amount of time,’ because it's out of our control once it leaves the brewery." In other words, Friedman is aging his beers — in his own commercial cellar — precisely so that you don’t have to. He even rests them in the bottle for up to a month to allow final activity to settle, prior to release. "I greatly prefer that you are tasting what the brewers and blenders intended."
Conversely, home-cellaring affords the drinker the ability to inject his/her own hand into the beer’s ultimate expression. "They can do whatever the hell they want with it, after they buy it," contends Avery. "They’re taking a risk that the beer isn’t going to get better with time. I appreciate people thinking so much about the experience that they are willing to invest that time and patience." Win or lose, home-cellaring is an entertaining exercise that’s relatively easy for the craft drinker to try. And anything fun is worth taking a little risk.