Why Cellar Beer?
I have a dirty little secret. For a woman who spends half of her life writing, researching and drinking beer, my “cellar” is a collection of fridges and cardboard boxes stashed in various corners of a sunny loft in downtown Toronto.
Right now I’m committing a handful of sins:
In the wine fridge, I’ve laid my best bottles on their sides and then crammed in a few more on top by shoving them in the available gaps — at precarious angles to fill every single inch of space possible. I intend to age these bottles, anywhere from six months to 10 years (providing my willpower holds out that long).
The bulk of my beer is in my main fridge, a 1990s Maytag. The brews on the top shelf are designated “husband-allowed-to-drink-without-wife-having-seizure” bottles, while the other shelves are where “the work,” and more interesting lagers and ales, are kept.
Then there are the boxes — closed six-packs and two open-top wine boxes sit beside a long row of windows (yes, windows!). The bottles are rare, or otherwise deemed “good ones” by me, so why do I have them exposed to light, which causes beer to skunk? It started a few months ago when I began running out of room in the beer fridge, so I just stacked the bottles beside it — at first it was only a few, but now there are two dozen.
Living in a light-filled open-concept loft in downtown Toronto, with no basement or any naturally cold spots, I could hardly pick a worse home to start a beer collection.
My husband keeps saying that a lack of a proper beer cellar isn’t a good enough reason to sell the loft. So it’s high time I learned about what I can do to best preserve my precious brews, and to make sure I’m not laying down anything that could turn into swill with age.
I called Erica Graholm, a brewer at Steam Whistle and an avid beer collector. Since she started home brewing 10 years ago, Graholm’s built up a collection of about 100 bottles at home, and stashes another 200 in her parents’ wine cellar.
Finding beers that get better with age
The first problem I wanted to solve: Which beers in my collection could I just neck now, to gain some space, as they may not improve with age anyway?
The first rule when looking for beers to age is to look for beers with high alcohol — at least 8 per cent ABV, says Graholm, as the booze acts as a preservative. Basically any beer below this percentage is best drunk when fresh, within three months of brewing. Boozy barleywines, imperial stouts and Belgian strong ales can be cellared, as can anything marked vintage or reserve by the brewer — a sign that the beer is meant to be aged. Some craft brewers are even starting to give their beers the “vertical” stamp, indicating you can collect these each year.
Storing these styles of beer can help the high alcohol to be reabsorbed, so that you lose that boozy heat, and allow the biting hop edge noticeable in American barleywines to wane, bringing out deep red fruity notes, chocolate or other interesting malt characteristics. High-alcohol barrel-aged beers are also good candidates for aging as the woody notes soften with time.
“I have a few different years of Fuller’s Vintage Ale,” says Graholm. “Every year I’ve enjoyed the vintages the most right around the three- to six-year mark because the bitterness subsides, the sweetness comes out and you get a more complex malt profile, but not too much of over-aged sherry character.
“Bitterness will dissipate over time, so if you buy a hop-forward beer like an IPA you’ll want to drink this right away, no matter how high the alcohol, to get the fresh, hop bite,” says Graholm.
The other varieties of beer that can age well are those with low pH levels, as the high acid content in these brews — mostly sours and lambics — will protect them from spoiling, and the sour flavours will change in interesting ways over time. Cantillon, for example, which gets its barnyard character from wild yeasts in the Senne Valley, near Brussels, is a beer that is recommended to be aged for 20 years. Also look for beers made with Brettanomyces, a funky yeast that’s usually added near bottling and needs time to develop.
John Graham, owner and brew master of Church-Key Brewing outside of Campbellford, Ontario, says one of the best beers he’s ever enjoyed when aged is a Belgian brown sour Lactoose Falcon, which he brewed in the fall of 2007.
“We did a lactic souring in the mash tun, so when we released it, drinkers found harsh notes of Parmesan or dirty socks. There was a very sharp sourness to it. But as it aged, some chocolate came forward and the sourness went from Parmesan to sour black cherry as it reached the two- and three-year marks,” says Graham.
“I think what happens is some of the lactic acid was reabsorbed somehow, so you’re tasting a different sour note.”
But still, within lambics, sours and high-alcohol, non-hoppy brews, there are potentially thousands of beers that could go into the cellar — with limited space, how do you choose the perfect one?
“I look at reviews of the beer to get an idea of what it tastes like now,” says Graholm. “The tasting notes will give you a good idea of whether it’s something you’ll want to drink now so certain flavours don’t dissipate, or [to] tuck away.
“Collecting is very personal — go for stuff that you like,” she says. “When I started aging beers I just went to the LCBO around Christmastime and bought six bottles of the same thing, and I tried one every year until it got to where I liked it.”
And when shopping in cities or countries where you’re unfamiliar with the beers, Graholm advises asking staff at good beer stores to help select cellar-worthy bottles.
After talking to Graholm, I went through my stock of “good beers,” in and around the wine fridge. I realized I’d been saving a lot of beer because it was hard for me to get in Ontario, not because it should be aged. So I transferred six bottles of Black Oak Brewery’s 10 Bitter Years (a double IPA) and a few hoppy Dieu du Ciel varieties from their box to the “drinking fridge,” as I wanted to taste the fresh-hopped character. A 5.5-per-cent bottle of Cannery Maple Stout, which I’d picked up last Christmas, and some lower alcohol wheat beers and pale ales I’d picked up in the US or Vancouver, also went to the “drink now” fridge.
Storing the beer
Beer storage boils down to three things, says Graholm: light, position and consistent temperature.
The light rule is simple. Keep your beer in the dark — sun or light bulbs will react with the hops in beer and “skunk” it.
For years, the beer world has debated over whether bottles are best when laid down or stood up.
These days, the debate seems to be over: aficionados keep their beer standing up for a couple of reasons. Beer kept on its side for too long can create a yeast ring that won’t settle, so when you finally crack that prized bottle, floaty bits will pour straight into the glass. As well, upright storage minimizes the amount of surface area that’s exposed, slowing oxidization, which can result in unsavoury wet cardboard or sherry notes.
Even corked beer, it’s argued, is best standing up because modern-day corks contain suberin (a waxy material that doesn’t let water in), they’re much less prone to shrinkage and the bottle is already humid inside, meaning that the cork shouldn’t dry out.
My wine fridge is the most consistently cool environment in the house, and that’s where I keep my big barleywines, quads and reserve ales — bottles I intend to open in three or more years.
But Graholm isn’t so sure this is the best idea. “It’s probably more important for bottles that you’re aging for a shorter term, say a few months to a year, to be aged cooler,” she says. “These beers will likely have a bigger hop presence to them that you don’t want to lose, so I’d advise getting those beers into the fridge.”
And the experts agree — higher alcohol, higher-malt-profile beers like barleywines, quads and imperial porters and stouts can be stored at room temperature (55°F–60°F), so a cool, dark closet or cellar will do if you’re running out of room in the fridge. IPAs, doppelbocks, lambics and stouts are better at cellar temperatures (50°F–55°F) and lighter beers (pilsners, lagers, wheats) should be cooler (45°F–50°F).
“I keep the beers that I intend to age for at least three years or more in my parents’ wine cellar, which is cool in the winter but not that cool in summer. There’s a fairly consistent gradual rise in temperature, but I haven’t noticed any problems with that kind of aging.
“For more fragile beers, keeping them at a consistent temperature is more important than the exact storage temperature,” she says.
Armed with this new information, I moved my barleywines, St-Ambroise Russian Imperial Stouts, Rochefort 10s and Les Trois Mousquetaires Baltic Porters to the coolest, darkest space I could find in my loft: my closet. Then I removed two of the shelves from my wine fridge, making room for 20 bottles standing up but leaving five big bottles on their side on a top shelf. Aside from a few lambics, which I intend to age for at least five years, the remaining bottles in the wine fridge will be aged for only one to two years maximum, and the beers I “laid down” I intend to drink within six months.
The easiest way to discover how aging affects a beer is to buy at least two bottles — drink one soon after buying to see what it’s like. I like to string a label around the bottle noting the date the beer was bought, along with brief tasting notes from the first bottle. For the more disciplined among us, note what year you think it’d be best to drink it in, and organize your collection by those dates. But a good rule of thumb is to cellar the other beer for at least a year.
Vertical tastings can also be highly instructive in discovering which years work best with certain styles of beer, not to mention a fun thing to geek out over with a few beer-loving friends.
And a final piece of advice from Graholm: “If in doubt, drink right away.” She says, “I’ve left a few beers too long, like some Belgians that were over-oxidized, and I grew to violently dislike that flavour.”