Now that the spring season’s almost upon us, it’s time to figure out what to do with those leftover bottles of high-ABV winter seasonals. Sure, you could invite your friends over for a personal strong beer fest, but that immediate satisfaction won’t compare to the adventures waiting for you in the world of cellaring. Over the next few weeks, I’m tackling some of the biggest questions in beer aging. Today, we take a look at technique with the help of Mitch Steele, production manager and headbrewer at Stone Brewing Co. First, a bit of background information:
Stone’s known for, among many things, its Vertical Epic Series. Just how large is the brewery’s cellar?
“It’s over in another warehouse, and we must archive several hundred cases of every special release we do.”
What are some personal favorites you’ve sampled, from either Stone’s or your personal cellar?
“I really like how Double Bastard Ale ages. It really peaks after several years in the bottle. Outside of Stone, I was just having a party and we popped open a 1988 bottle of J.W. Less Harvest Ale. It was a wonderful beer.”
In more general terms, what are your favorite styles to cellar?
“I tend to like cellaring strong ales and also strong Belgians, like lambics and guezes.”
The Cellaring Technique: Placement, location and temperature
Many of you noticed our piece on bottle racks in the January/February issue. A few even wrote in, referencing one of the biggest questions in beer cellaring: Should beer be laid down or stored upright? Well, the answer is…it really depends. Many aficionados are adamant that storing beer on its side leads to increased oxidation, contamination from the cork or cap, and a whole host of other problems. The truth is, that’s not entirely true. Steele uses a hybrid approach in his cellar.
“For me, if it’s capped I store it upright and if it’s corked I save it on its side,” says Steele. Steele’s reasoning follows this very straightforward logic: The cork of an upright bottle has an increased chance of drying out and losing its airtight seal, which leads to a sure-fire case of over-oxidation. To prevent the same problem, Steele leaves his capped bottles standing upright. “The cap is where the oxygen is going to ingress in the bottle,” says Steele. In other words, that pocket of air between your beer and the cap helps sustain equilibrium.
One of the most important decisions to make is where to create your cellar. When Steele lived in New Hampshire, he had the benefit of a temperature-controlled basement. But now he lives in California and, like myself, no longer has a basement. So, where’s the best place to stash your beer?
“A basement is ideal, but other than that, the best way to do it is to keep the beer refrigerated, although that’s out of the price range for many people,” says Steele. The next best place is an interior closet, preferably on a lower level floor. That whole rising heat phenomenon can really cause a headache when it comes to temperature control.
Speaking of which: What’s the ideal temperature for storing beer?
“I tend to like to store things in the 45 to 50 degree range,” notes Steele. “You don’t want to go through extreme temps because the beer will expand and contrast, and pull in air from the cap.” Basically, warmer temperatures accelerate the aging process, while colder temps stunt it. Typically, it’s best to store your beer in temperatures between 45 to 55 degrees, but ideal if you can keep the fluctuation within roughly 5 degrees.
Check back next Thursday when we examine the range of flavors that develop as beer ages.