Barley Mowat 

Stand Up or Sit Down

with 13 comments

If you want to turn a friendly cask beer fest into a no-holds-barred free-for-all in which bearded pacifists make glass shivs out of 4oz taster glasses, then leap into the fray, all you have to do is bring up one of the more contentious debates in beer geekology. No, I’m not talking about glass-vs-can, or even bottle-vs-can. I’m talking about cellaring beer on its side versus cellaring it standing upright.

The level of contention here is evident by the fact that about 90% of people reading this blog just thought “That’s an issue? You clearly store them XXX.” Those 90% were likely split about 75% to “upright” and 15% to “however you want” and 10% to “laying down.”

Conventional wisdom holds that beers should be cellared upright. However, conventional wisdom also provides us with such gems as “going outside with wet hair will make you sick”, “swallowed gum stays in your stomach for seven years” and “dogs can’t look up.” The only thing conventional about conventional wisdom that it’s only believed by idiots. I want facts, dammit.

The cellaring-upright crowd do attempt to make some points to back-up their claim. These are generally only sensible to folk with little to no background in physics or chemistry, but I’ll repeat them here for shits ‘n giggles anyway:

1/ Lying beer down increases the surface area of the beer in contact with the air, which increases oxidation. Oxidation is bad. QED.

Sounds fairly logical, doesn’t it? I’m certainly not going to argue with the premise that oxidation in beer is generally a Bad Thing. However, this argument misses a couple pretty major facts. First, the gas in a bottle of beer is not oxygen. It’s carbon dioxide, as any bottling line worth its salt flushes the bottles with CO2 prior to filling. Second, it doesn’t matter if the whole thing was pure, pressurized oxygen, anyway. On cellaring timelines, all the oxygen in the head space will have all the time it needs to interact with the beer, surface area be damned.


Does fact that I did not get this image of the surface area of human skin off a taxidermist website make it more or less creepy?

2/ Lying beer down means that if the cap/cork fails, all the beer runs out!

Well, yeah, it sorta does mean that. However, if the cap/cork fails and the beer stays inside, I will pay you a tidy sum to drink the infected mess that results. Beer keeps the nasties at bay via two methods: first, a cap or cork provides a physical barrier to the beer-ruining outside world. A cap/cork then also serves to keep in the CO2 pressure of the beer, which plays much the same role, only at a microscopic level. Any tiny pathway between the inside and outside (and they do exist) is not transit-able by bacteria because the positive pressure keeps them out. Take away that barrier and you have an infected mess. Storing upright might help with cleanup, though, but honestly cap/cork failure is so rare it shouldn’t seriously play into your cellaring plans.

3/ Corked beers should be stored lying down to prevent the cork from drying out

Dried out corks is a function of cellar humidity more than anything else. If your cellar has proper humidity (~60%), the cork will not dry out. Second, the gas on the inside of your bottle is at 100% humidity. Putting liquid against the cork doesn’t help with that. If your cellar is dry enough that corks are falling out of bottle necks, you have bigger issues than deciding which way to store your bottles.

4/ Corked beers should be stored lying down because cork is permeable to air, and it will let in oxygen

Cork is permeable to air; it’s true. So is glass. It’s all a matter of how permeable. This point is one of the main reasons you lie wine down, because the liquid slows the rate at which oxygen enters the bottle through the cork (or more accurately, around the relatively loose wine cork). This would make sense for beer if beer wasn’t carbonated, but it is. Carbonation provides a positive pressure inside the bottle (and requires a much tighter cork), which serves to dramatically lower the oxygen exchange rate. Curiously, this is the exact reason it’s okay to cellar champagne bottles standing up.


It’s also okay to drink champagne bottles standing up.
What’s that? It’s not? Huh. Learn something new every day.

5/ Lying beer down will rust away the cap

This would be an issue if the gas in your beer was oxygen which, as we discovered above, it isn’t. The air outside your bottle very definitely should be at least partially oxygen. No matter how straight you keep your bottles upright, though, they won’t get reach an altitude with lower oxygen. Beer caps are typically made from steel, which will oxidise over enough time. They’re coated to prevent this, though, and some beers are wax dipped to further prevent this. If your beers are oxidizing over a short period of time, something is likely wrong with them. Additionally, all caps have a plastic seal inside the cap to prevent this.

6/ Lying beer down will dissolve the plastic seal inside the cap

Sigh. Okay, there’s no hard data on this one. The fine folks who make these caps, though, say there’s no concern of breakdown if the material is kept in a dark, cool place. Kinda like a cellar. Only time will tell. Side note: modern plastic seals are made of a complex stack of various materials, with the outer one (facing the beer) designed to pro-actively react with any free oxygen remaining in the bottle to prevent it from oxidizing your beer.

7/ Lying beer down will free the trapped oxygen in the cap

Oh, fuck off. You just came up with that one now, didn’t you?

8/ Yes

Thought so. Anything else?

9/ Um… it will leave a yeast ring on the side of the bottle

Saved the best for last, did ya? Yup, cellaring bottle-conditioned beers can, over a long enough time, leave an unsightly yeast ring on the edge of the bottle. As well, yeast that has collected to the side of the bottle will pop right back into suspension when you start pouring. If you like yeast, this isn’t an issue, but honestly none of this affects the beer past presentation.



For the record, I cellar my beers standing up because I like to see the labels when I open the door. Space concerns, though, have me eyeing up horizontal storage. To evaluate the risks, I’m currently cellaring a sample of Old Cellar Dweller and Old Barrel Dweller both upright and laying down. Side-by-side tests next year will hopefully put all this to rest.

Written by chuck

July 23rd, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Beer and You

13 Responses to 'Stand Up or Sit Down'

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  1. Well, the gas on the inside of the bottle is at 100% *relative* humidity. The actual grams of water vapour / gram of dry gas is dependant on temperature. At cold temps, the gas is still pretty dry.

    Foaner

    23 Jul 13 at 22:16

  2. Oh sure, so says the chemical engineer! Who are you to say… uh… hmm… wanna start a brewery?

    chuck

    23 Jul 13 at 22:23

  3. Seriously, though, with the outside being just as cold as the inside the bottle, the interior humidity isn’t the thing that will dry out your cork. If there’s water in that cork that wants to get out, it will leave on the outward facing side of the cork. For cellar temperatures (~45-55F), 60-70% humidity seems to solve this problem.

    chuck

    23 Jul 13 at 22:40

  4. Great post. Informative, fun and well written.

    But you missed the one reason I won’t store on the side, which I haven’t researched at all and would have liked you to have done that work for me.

    I don’t want my beer making out with the plastic in the cap liner for long periods of time. Sometimes there’s PVC in there. Plastics have some nasty crap in them. And lastly, I’ve heard (and thus immediately believed) that the plastic liner can impart flavours and/or absorb flavours from the beer.

    Please do my homework.

    Jeffery

    24 Jul 13 at 14:30

  5. Beer is weakly acidic (pH<4.5 or so), though I would have to think the cap liners are made with this in mind. Still, I haven't heard a convincing argument for horizontal if you have the space to store things vertically!

    Tyler

    24 Jul 13 at 19:46

  6. @Jeffery — #6 wasn’t enough? The manufacturers strongly state that the caps are built with the chemical nature of beer in mind, and that they’re viable for long term storage. Time will tell the truth.

    @Tyler — Yup, true. Note that the vapour inside the bottle is also slightly acidic. Basically, with enough time the only difference between the gas and the liquid inside a beer bottle is pressure. They become otherwise chemically identical.

    chuck

    24 Jul 13 at 19:50

  7. #6 is useful, but doesn’t consider:
    – the chemicals in plastic liners and whether any nasties leach into the beer. For example, Sierra Nevada has criticized the prolific use of PVC in North American cap liners, which is banned in Europe.
    – whether there is flavour transfer to or from the cap liner, beyond just whether the liner “dissolves” or adequately protects against oxygenation.

    Jeffery

    25 Jul 13 at 16:07

  8. Chuck – now you’re just trolling me. If the gas and liquid were chemically identical, distillation wouldn’t work. Luckily for us, each component of the liquid has its own unique Henry’s law coefficient, which allows for a different mole fraction in the vapor and liquid phase.

    Foaner

    25 Jul 13 at 16:23

  9. @Foaner — Gotta admit, I left it in on second revision just for you.

    My main thrust, though, was that if there’s chemical X in the beer (esp alcohol) then you can expect that chemical to be in the gas. Worrying about alcohol reacting with the cap only when the liquid is against it is selective.

    @Tyler — One major argument for storing horizontally is storage space. My cellars are full. However, since they’re designed for wine I’m wasting about ~40 bottles of space.

    chuck

    25 Jul 13 at 16:54

  10. […] And that’s it. You’re ready. For more advanced info, read my (sorta NSFW) in-depth guide to cellaring, or perhaps my more recent article on cellaring beer standing up or lying down. […]

  11. If there is a reaction, it would happen a lot faster with the liquid continually contacting the cap vs the vapor contacting the cap. Reaction probably isn’t he right word anyway. Jeffrey mentioned leaching a few comments up, which can be pretty fast from solid into liquid, but pretty slow from solid into gas.

    Foaner

    25 Jul 13 at 17:29

  12. Absolutely it’ll happen faster, but over the course of many years everything that can react might very well react.

    In all fairness, though, an experiment is called for and an experiment I am doing. A year of solid cap contact Barley Wine will be sampled side by side with the same stored standing up (and only 10cm away in the fridge).

    If anything noticeably nasty is going to leach in, it’ll do it in a year of contact with ~15% ABV.

    chuck

    25 Jul 13 at 17:40

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