Beer: aged to perfection

I’ve run into a few people recently who are starting their own beer cellars.  To be honest, the idea is a bit intimidating to me, because “beer cellaring” sounds fancy and complicated to my ears.  After a bit of research, however, I found that it’s not so hard, and even a bit of an adventure.  If you have some patience and enjoy a little experimentation, you might give it a try!  Below I’ve outlined the basics to get you started.

Why store beer:

Beer enthusiasts store beer because they are curious and like to experiment, and probably have a preference for the flavors that come out after storage.  A lot of what happens during storage comes from esters in the beer. Esters are a by-product of ale yeast fermentation (lagers do not have esters).  As the beer sits in your cellar, esters break down, with help from yeasts, and their flavors begin to dissipate.  Hop flavors also tend to break down quickly.  As a result of these and other reactions that occur in the bottle, aged beer tends to be smoother and creamier in comparison to beer that has not been stored. Common flavors in cellared beer include chocolate, coffee, toffee and spice.

What to store: Most beers have a shelf life of three to six months, so only certain types of beers benefit from maturation – those that can be set aside for at least a year or two to develop complexities in aroma, flavor and mouthfeel.  Beers that have higher than 8% alcohol content tend to benefit most from storage  These beers include old ales, Belgian strong beers, lambics, imperial stouts, barleywines, and maybe even a big IPA.  When you go to the store, buy two of your chosen brew, because you will want to compare its characteristics before and after storage.

Where to store:

The best place to store beer is a cool, dark place.  A basement is a good option.  A refrigerator could work, but might provide an environment too dry for some beer corks – so be sure to check on humidity conditions.

Step one: Block sunlight. Glass bottles allow UV rays to come into contact with the beer, causing chemicals called isohumulones – which make beer bitter – to decompose and form compounds found in skunks’ spray. This is why beer exposed to light is called “skunked beer.”

Step two: Make sure the temperature is stable, ideally between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Colder temperatures will produce a hazy appearance and kill carbonation, flavor and aroma, while warmer temperatures shorten the lifespan of the beer.  Avoid temperature fluctuations of greater than 20 degrees.  A good rule of thumb is that beers with higher alcohol content can withstand higher temperatures while beers with lower alcohol content can be stored at lower temperatures.

Step three: Keep track of humidity.  Too little humidity will dry out the cork (more on that below), and too much humidity will produce black mold in your stored bottle.  You can use an air purifier along with a humidifier or de-humidifier depending on where you live to keep the humidity between 50-70 percent.

How to store:

Aficionados argue whether beer should be stored upright, or on its side like wine.  If stored upright, it is argued, the sediment in the beer bottle will settle to the bottom, but the cork will dry out.  Dry corks are bad because they tend to be looser in the neck and allow more air to be exchanged between the bottle and the outside climate; plus no one likes it when a cork crumbles to pieces into their beverage.  Beer stored on its side, however, could form a yeast ring in the bottle that will not settle, and constant contact with the cork can impart cork flavors on the beer.  Check out Beer Advocate for an article supporting upright storage.

When to liberate beer from storage:

There is no set time for beer storage.  Most say that beers may be stored anywhere from a couple of years to 10 years, but may deteriorate after 5 years.  Experimentation is part of the fun, so you can become the expert in the types of beers that you like.

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