Beer can, and should, be cellared. Not only does cellaring get beer into the right temperature range for drinking, but it also gives certain beers time to mature and develop interesting complexities. Lastly, putting beer in a cellar means it’s not in your fridge, which means it’s not whispering “driiiinnk meeee” every time you open the fridge door to grab breakfast. This will make your beer last longer, and also make your breakfasts a whole lot better.
Everywhere you look, there are all kinds of suggestions for tips and tricks to cellaring beer and wine. Sadly, the vast majority of these seem to be written by morons, so here’s the main points you need to know.
1. What should be cellared?
Depending on who you talk to, the answer to this ranges from “only imperial stouts” to “beer? why would you cellar beer?” They are both equally wrong. Since a bottle cap is not a magical time-stopping device, all beer will change character over time. Not all of this will be for the better, but minimally the beer will get more… interesting. Generally high-sugar and high-alcohol beers will do better, but why let the barley wines have all the fun? Here’s what to expect:
- Alcohol flavour will become less pronounced, and maybe eventually fade into the background. Don’t get me wrong, that 40 year old 15% barley wine will still get you there, but you might not notice until it’s too late.
- Hops will become bitter-er, and fade in intensity. Fresh-hopped ales do not cellar well, but some highly-hopped ales might become mild enough to let the rest of the beer actually taste like something with a year or two in the tank.
- Malt characteristics will blend and mellow. Stronger flavours will fade much faster than more mild ones. A beer that had intense coffee flavours might lose that sharp edge, but this will let the more subtle notes shine through.
- Very yeasty beers will settle out (until you shake them), which will allow you to taste the pure beer (handy for bottle-fermented pilsners).
As a general rule bottle conditioned ales do better in the cellar than others, but do not be afraid to experiment.
2. Where should I cellar it?
Beer is a delicate flower, and it needs to be treated right to get what you want out of it.
Beer needs to be kept at a cool and–far more importantly–stable temperature. Ideally cellar beer at 40-60F (same temp as drinking temp), in a place where the temperature will not vary by more than 5F over time. While the ideal temperature is indeed something you should strive for, I cannot stress how important temperature stability is. Put your beer in a kitchen fridge before you put it in a cool closet that sometimes gets warm (same goes for wine).
After you wander around your house for a few weeks holding a thermometer, you eventually realize you need to either dig a hole in the back yard beside that hooker you killed in ’86, or buy a commercial cellar. Commercial cellars have several advantages, not the least of which is their tendency to keep criminal evidence under six feet of soil, where it belongs.
These cellars are universally sold for wine, and range in price from <$10 per bottle to >$50. At the low end are “wine chillers” while at the high end things tend to be called “cellars” or “cabinets.” There IS a difference. Chillers, or fridges, are just that: fridges that stay a bit warmer than the one you keep the cheese in. Cellars have all sorts of fancy features in them designed to extract as much money as possible out of wine snobs, and virtually all of these are useless for beer-focused cellarers. So, ignore things like “Temperature range of 1F!”, “Integrated Humidity Control!”, “Non-compressor Refrigeration for less vibration!” etc. We just need something that stays consistently cold over time (and maybe even warms up if you get below 50F).
I picked up a Chigo/Eurodib fridge from Costco for sub-$10 a bottle. It has adjustable shelves so I can keep my bottles standing up, but let me be the first to tell you this thing is a giant piece of shit. There’s a reason it’s 25% the cost of decent real cellars, and it shows every second of every day. Although, it sure does keep my beer at a nice and stable 52-57F.
3. How should I cellar it?
Lying down versus standing up, oh that great beer cellaring debate. The general consensus is that one should cellar wine on its side and beer standing up. I agree with this, but the reasons are rather much simpler than people would like you to believe. It boils down to this:
Wine is corked. Corks are permeable to air/oxygen. Keeping liquid against the cork reduces the rate at which the air inside and outside the bottle become friends.
Beer is capped. Caps are much much less permeable to air/oxygen, so we can have air right up against the cap. Beers destined for a cellar also tend to be bottle conditioned, and have an awful lot of yeasty bits floating around. Maybe you like those, but I don’t, so by keeping the bottle in the same position as you serve it, you don’t stir it up when you pour the darned thing.
Also, you can actually read the labels this way.
That’s about it. There is a valid point about standing corks drying out, but that’s more a function of cellar humidity, which you can control with a bowl of water. Everything people tell you about “air/water surface area” and such is basically bunk. Corked beers are left up to you to decide.
4. What else?
- Mark your bottles with one of those fancy silver craft paint pens. It sticks to the bottles, and lets you remember when exactly you put it in the fridge. Don’t just mark when you bought the beer, but if possible, also the batch/production run. This will help you account for the time it took our friends to get from the brewery to your local craft beer store.
- Buy many bottles. Drink one right now and make notes on how drinkable it is (some cellaring ales are virtually undrinkable at first). Pull one out and sample it from time to time. As well, buying lots of bottles pushes out that sad sad day when you drink your last one.
- Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, invite me over when you pull some out for a tasting. You, being a member of the public, do not have the taste buds to appreciate/evaluate how your investment is maturing and will absolutely require an outside expert like myself to come in. I may even provide this service for free.