The When and How of Beer Cellaring

June 23, 2015

You reach for that special bottle; the one you've been saving for months or years to open at just the right time. It means something to you, it's important, and you just can't wait to savour the beer within.

It opens with... a whimper. It pours out, totally lifeless, and all you really taste can only be described as wet cardboard - leaving you wondering 'what happened?'

Ageing or cellaring beer can be incredibly rewarding and endlessly fascinating, but it can also be a big waste of money and time. For the most part, beer isn't really made to be kept for long periods of time. Most modern styles are best kept cold and drunk as soon as possible. Beer is a volatile product that, once packaged, continues to change with oxygen, light, and temperature all playing a part.

That's not to say there aren't styles that can't be kept for months, years, and in some rare cases, decades, but how do you know which to keep and which to drink?

IT WILL ALWAYS CHANGE BUT NOT ALWAYS FOR THE BEST

The most important thing to remember when ageing beer is that it will definitely change over time. Understanding what will change is the key to understanding whether or not you should age a beer.

The first noticeable change is usually the volatile aromas and bitterness from hops will both fade. If a brewer has put a large amount of hops in a beer their intent is probably for you to drink the beer as soon as possible. Some highly-hopped styles will lose the intended flavour and aroma after just 3 months.

One of the biggest causes of this is the presence of oxygen, which not only takes away the lovely hop-aromas, but also goes to work on the malt and triggering chemical reactions. As a result, pale beers start developing wet cardboard flavours that are incredibly unpleasant. With darker beers, the malts react slightly different and tend to have more longevity, with black malts developing some pleasant sherry-like characteristics as a result of the meladonins present. However, given enough time they may also be overwhelmed by the dreaded wet cardboard flavour.

Another thing to be wary of is that any "infections" picked up in the brewing process may not be apparent early on but over time start to take and impact the base beer negatively. Generally the result of wild yeast or bacteria unintentionally picked up in the brewing process, there is always a risk they can be ruining your aging beer while you wait unaware.

The final thing to be aware of is any adjuncts used in the brewing process that will also change over time. Things such as fruit, coffee, and herbs and spices are regularly used in some beer but aren't always stable flavours. Fruit flavours will lose their freshness, coffee often takes on a green-pepper/capsicum flavour or fades all together, and herbs and spices will fade in different ways depending on just what they are.

WHEN DOES IT CHANGE FOR THE BEST?

That all depends on your palate of course, but often the best styles for aging are higher in abv (think 8%+), with darker malts. That isn't true for all beer, but it is definitely a great starting-off point, with the malts less susceptible to oxygen and the alcohol providing more stability to the beer as a whole.

The other styles of beer great for ageing are beers using brettanomyces yeast, which will develop over time and work with the oxygen rather than being damaged by it, or beers with bacteria intentionally added (as mentioned above, if it's unintentional then it will ruin the beer’s intended flavour).

The best thing to do for a start is actually taste the beer first. Putting away an untasted beer to age is almost a pointless endeavour as you don't know what was going to change in the first place. Once you have an idea of what flavours are in the beer you will have a better idea of how they might develop, and whether or not you want the beer to change or not. While not all beer following these loose rules will age well (and of course there are a number of exceptions) those are the general guidelines you can start with.

HOW LONG?

Given the number of variables in your beer, it can take some guesswork as to how long a beer will take to age. Like wine, it may go through "dumb" periods (where flavours are muted) and then develop into something amazing soon after. It's a matter of taking an educated guess and trying to understand what flavours are going to change. Personally I wouldn't age many styles longer than five years, however some Belgian beers (Trappist/Abbey or Lambics) and imperial stouts have been aged for decades successfully. Keep in mind though, the longer you keep it the more chance it has of going bad. Don’t risk ruining an entire batch!

WHERE?

Like wine, beer should be kept at a stable cool temperature of around 10˚C when being aged for long periods. Too cool and it will slow down any beneficial changes, and too warm and these changes will intensify and move a lot quicker.

If you happen to have your own underground cave then that would be an excellent start; but if you aren't so lucky then a dark, cool cupboard, or an old, unused chest or freezer will do the job just as well. To get an idea of temperature, leave a thermometer and check at regular intervals to check for any fluctuations.

If you happen to have your own underground cave then that would be an excellent start; but if you aren't so lucky then a dark, cool cupboard, or an old, unused chest or freezer will do the job just as well. To get an idea of temperature, leave a thermometer and check at regular intervals to check for any fluctuations.

The other important thing to consider when choosing an ageing location is whether or not there is room to store bottles both on their side and standing up. There are many arguments for both cork and crown-seal bottles to be stored either way. Without unpacking each debate, my general rule of thumb is this: corks on their side and caps standing up. While I have seen good arguments for the exact opposite, as far as I know no comprehensive studies have been done into the differences between the two. That also applies to long-term ageing of canned beer, however in theory they should age just as well as a beer packaged in the traditional way.

TRACKING

The final thing you must consider when aging beer is how to best keep track of it. There are few things worse than uncovering a dusty bottle in the back of your cupboard that is years past its best.

While there are some online tools to assist, the simplest way is to keep a spreadsheet on your computer or using Excel, Google Docs (or a similar Cloud-based spreadsheet). Making sure you register each beer stored, along with the date, will make your collection much easier to navigate, especially if it starts creeping up into the hundreds-of-bottles mark (which happens far more easily than you think, trust me). Once you have stored it, tracked it, and decided on the right time to finally drink it, the results can be incredibly rewarding.

Keeping all the variables in mind can lead you to a better understanding of why it tastes different after all that time, and this can result in some amazing and sometimes unique beer experiences. While it comes with a financial risk (you may end up pouring your money down the drain), cellaring beer can have a fun and tasty upside. Now, all this talk of chemical reactions, light, flavours and beer has made me thirsty. Guess it's time to open my spreadsheet and discover what I have tucked away.