My Cellar – A Cool Basement Closet
Over the past month we have commented a fair bit on cellaring or aging beer. Most beer drinkers, mainly those who drink generic lager, don’t know that beer ages just as well as wine. A passionate beer drinker will almost always have a beer cellar, and if not they will have tried aging beer only to discover their pallet is not fond of cellared beer. Aged beer tastes dramatically different than fresh beer, and there is no shame in disliking aged beer, but there is shame, lots of shame, in not trying it. Being an inquisitive person, I searched far and wide, the internet mainly, for information about how to properly cellar beer, and to learn what is actually going on in a bottle while beer ages.
How to Build a Basic Cellar
I have been cellaring beer for just over a year now. My cellar is probably one of the most popular styles; it is a closet in my basement. There is a heap of information available on the internet on how to build a cellar, some is good and some is over the top ridiculous. Creating a basic cellar is quite simple; find the coldest place in your house, turn out the lights, place beer in the cool dark room and patiently wait. Ideally a cellar should be between 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit with minimal temperature fluctuation. If the room used as a cellar, a crawl space for example, drops to around 40 F or colder, it is not well suited for cellaring beer. Most homes have a room or closet close to an appropriate cellar temperate, so please feel no need to renovate.
There is great debate about aging bottles standing up or laying down. I don’t think it matters a great deal either way. Beer Advocate has a good article in support of the bottles standing up approach.
What Beers to Cellar
Any beer can be aged, but generally speaking the best choices are bigger ales. Barley wines, old ales, imperial stouts, big IPAs, and most strong Belgian ales are great candidates for aging. I have a small preference for bottle conditioned ales, beer that has been re-fermented in the bottle, as the yeast sediment helps in the aging process. With beer there are no rules, only guidelines, so feel free to experiment with your favorite brew – pick beer that agrees with your pallet.
Many people recommend buying two or three bottles when cellaring beer. One for immediate consumption, one after 6-12 months (if you bought three) and the final one for as long as your patience can last. I have heard of beer being aged well past 10 years successfully. If you only have enough money for one bottle, that is perfectly acceptable – drinking good beer is not a pastime reserved for the elite.
What is Going on in the Beer Bottle
Anyone who has made a stew will know that it always tastes better the next day. The big flavours in a stew need time to blend together and develop – beer is the same way. This is the simplest explanation; the flavours in beer blend together creating distinct new and often more complex flavours.
Many of the unique flavours in ale, fruit, floral and spice, come from esters in the beer. Esters are a byproduct of ale yeast fermentation – lager yeast does not create esters. These esters give ale a unique flavour and aroma and are intended to be there, they are not off flavours. As beer ages, esters break down and their flavours begin to disappear. Yeast helps to break down esters, explaining my preference for bottle conditioned ales. Flavour compounds from the hops also fade relatively quickly. Many other reactions take place in a bottle of beer while is ages, changing its flavour profile. As a result aged beer is often smoother, almost creamy, in comparison to young beer. Common flavours in cellared beer are coffee, toffee, chocolate, spice, and vinous (Sherry like) to name a few. In general, it is the malt flavours that become more pronounced in aged beer. The only real way to find out what aged beer tastes like is to visit your favorite beer store, refrain from drinking all of your newly purchased beer, and keep a few bottles in the cellar. It is that simple.
We are planning on putting together a page dedicated to our cellars – discussing and reviewing how well different beers age. This should be up shortly. For additional information on cellaring beer I recommend visiting brewbasement.com, a great site all about cellaring beer.