Deciding what beers to age needn’t be a heady decision; sometimes, you just want to save a particular beer for a special occasion, and that’s fine. But if you’re buying beers specifically for aging purposes, opt for brews that are high in alcohol (at least 8% ABV) and malt, and low in hops, as bittering compounds break down over time. (If you do wish to store hoppy beers like IPAs, keep them refrigerated; cold storage prevents hop oil spoilage.) Watch for these beer label buzzwords when selecting cellar candidates:
- Bottle-conditioned Bottle-conditioned beers contain active yeast that will ferment the beer as long as you store it, lending the beer new flavors and complexities as it ages.
- Reserve Brewers’ special “reserve series” beers are rare releases (usually anniversary brews) often intended to be aged.
- Brettanomyces This admired Belgian yeast, often added to beer near its bottling, needs months to develop its unique flavor.
- Vertical This word on a beer label means the brewer wants you to buy now, enjoy later. These beers are released annually and meant to be collected over time to form a “vertical collection” of the same brew.
- Barrel-aged Beers aged in wood usually contain big flavors that temper nicely with time.
Pay attention to labels—some recommend aging, while others offer expiration dates—but more than anything, experiment: Beer cellaring is a relatively new hobby, and sometimes, it pays to age a questionable beer.
If you can, purchase in multiples: If you want to cellar, say, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barleywine, buy three. Drink one immediately, one in two years, and one in five years. Take notes each time, and compare them to determine the beer’s optimal aging period.
Beer needs three perfect conditions to age properly: darkness, coolness and consistency. Always keep light away from beer; light—from the sun or a bulb—reacts with acids within beer, and the result is a “skunky” or sulfuric taste and smell. Keep your aging brew somewhere dark.
Beer should also mature in a cool space, but not your refrigerator—ideally, a spot between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the standard temperature for cellaring. More exact cellar keepers should store highly alcoholic brews (like barleywines and Belgian strong ales) at room temperature, and lighter brews (like pilsners and hoppier styles) at slightly cooler temperatures.
Keep the conditions surrounding your beer consistent. Don’t store beer in a closet that gets hot in the summer and chilly in the winter, or on a shelf that sees light in the early morning. Finally, if you’ve already chilled a bottle in the fridge but now want to cellar it, don’t worry; only excessive temperatures “ruin” beer, so as long as the beer isn’t frozen, it’ll age normally in your cellar.
First, hang a tag around each beer’s neck or slap a sticker on the bottom; on it, note the date you began aging it. Then, put it away.
The stand-it-up or lay-it-down debate has been heated for decades. Beer laid down, like wine, is usually easier, storage-wise; you can use your favorite wine rack, and even lay your beer and vino side-by-side. Plus, some cellaring pros argue that corked beer should be kept horizontal to maintain moisture in the cork, as dried-out cork can shrink, and that doing so increases the beer’s surface area exposed to air within the bottle, giving active yeast more fuel for respiration. Still, we agree with many brewers who think vertical storage is the best method: First, cork may impose undesirable musty, “corky” flavors in beer; standing beer upright eliminates that risk, and likely, there’s enough humidity inside the bottle to keep the cork from drying out. Second, when beer is stored horizontally, any sediment in the beer spreads out, and may cause a ring of yeast inside the bottle that doesn’t settle; storing beer vertically forces sediment to sink to the bottom of the bottle, which means its less likely to end up in your glass.
How long? Nobody knows for sure; brewers and beer drinkers usually determine aging times by trial and error. Allow cellarable beers to age at least one year; if you store several bottles of one brew, open them at regular intervals—one year, five years, ten years—to see what works. Some beers, especially “vertical series” beers, are intended to be aged even longer; a bottle of Cantillon lambic will age nicely for about 20 years, whereas a Chimay Blue Grand Reserve should age no longer than 10 years. But altogether, beer aging isn’t an exact science, and to many, that’s part of the hobby’s appeal.
When you do decide to serve your aged beer, follow the store-serve temperature rule: Serve the beer at the same temperature in which it was stored (unless, of course, it’s been in the fridge; let it warm up a bit, then pour). Take written or mental notes of the beer’s profile, and if you took notes on an earlier bottle, compare the two.