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Home Beer No basement, no problem: A guide to aging beer in hostile environments

No basement, no problem: A guide to aging beer in hostile environments

Don't dump 'em: A brew that’s sweet and boozy fresh could become great, given time.
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The general rules of aging beer are, by this point, pretty well-known. Focus on high-alcohol beers and intensely flavored styles like imperial stouts and barleywines; store them out of the reach of sunlight; try to keep them at a constant temperature between 55 and 65 degrees. But for many would-be cellarmen, warm climates and the lack of a beer fridge make following that last decree particularly tough. What’s a beer nerd without a basement to do? For the answer, we turned to Patrick Dawson, an expert on aging beers well. He’s the author of “Vintage Beer: A Taster’s Guide to Brews That Improve over Time” and a regular drinker of ales that are older than you—he once tasted a Bass Ratcliffe Ale bottled in 1869, which had to be poured through a cheesecloth to catch all the chunks of coagulated yeast muck and crumbled cork, but still held up well. Dawson offers several tips for laying down bottles when your environment is far from ideal.

Invest in insulation.
Because so many beers are fermented in a brewery’s tanks at temperatures lower than 70 degrees, Dawson says that’s about as warm as you ever want your cellar to get. “There are certain flavors that could come out at that temperature that the brewer never even realized would come out,” he says. But for the sweltering late-summer months when even “room temperature” nudges near 80, getting above that magic number is unavoidable; you’re going to have to take extra steps to minimize the damage. Dawson suggests using styrofoam shipping boxes (the kind you can pick up at most large liquor stores) or an insulated cooler, which will at least mitigate the temperature swings and allow the beer to age more gracefully. “The whole logic with temperature swings is that there’s an activation temperature for certain chemical processes,” says Dawson. “They’ll slow down or maybe even stop at certain temperatures, so if you’re constantly stopping and starting these processes, the beer’s not going to mature as well. You want to just have that nice, steady temperature so the processes can finish out smoothly.”

Aim for the middle.
Don’t store your beer in closets with exterior facing walls, Dawson explains: They tend to get warmer and go through larger temperature fluctuations throughout the day. Try to find a space for your insulated boxes near the center of your home or apartment, where the AC will have maximum effect and what’s going on outside will matter least.

Buy tougher beer.
“If you have a 55-degree cellar, yeah, age an 8% or 9% beer, but if you’re only able to keep it around 70 degrees, I’d say nothing below 11%,” suggests Dawson. Big, viscous beers with lots of residual sweetness and loads of alcohol flavor are your best bet in staving off the thinning of a beer’s body and reduction in its malty sweetness that naturally occur over time and will be more pronounced at higher temps. He says, “For me, a dream barleywine bound for the cellar is basically screaming hot—like, it just tastes like rubbing alcohol—and it’s thick and syrupy sweet. Over time, that’s going to develop so much more complexity and have enough body that by the time I drink it, it doesn’t feel like a Diet Coke.”

Shorten their slumber.
Higher temperatures make beers age more quickly, so if you’re on the fence about how long you want to age it, err on the shorter side. “It’s always better to have a beer a little bit too young than too old, because once those stale flavors come about, they’re always there,” Dawson says. “If you open it too young, maybe it’s still a little too boozy and all that complexity hasn’t developed yet, but it’s still drinkable and enjoyable.”

 

Author
Zach Fowle is DRAFT's beer editor. Reach him at zach@draftmag.com.

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5 Comments

  • jason says:

    the “age” old question, do you age your beers standing up, or on their side?

    • Michael Ranella says:

      you definitely want to age them standing up

    • James Allen says:

      Modern bottled beers with traditional press-on caps should never be laid down on the side. First and foremost, laying a beer bottle on its side will force any settled solids to migrate and flush back into the (aging) beer. Again, when moving that bottle or pulling it to serve; those solids will flush/migrate at least once more. It’s no secret that they have potential to impart off flavors to any beer… much less one you’ve invested a lot of time, patience, and self-control to age for its flavor. Secondly, nearly all modern beers do not use corks as a closure and airlock. Modern capping technology has enabled pressurized vessels to stay that way without the need to keep the cork material wet and impermeable to outside air.

  • Doug says:

    Do you lay them down or stand them up?

  • N says:

    Aging beer in hostile enviroments?. It sounds like you are actually maturing, or aging before bottling, not after. Nice article!.

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