Cellar dwellers: The do’s and don’ts of cellaring beer

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A practical guide to cellaring beer (Beer bottles/Shutterstock)

While the vast majority of commercial beers we drink are designed to be consumed as fresh as possible, some can actually benefit from some added time—provided it’s under the right conditions. Like wine, some beers can be cellar-aged to improve their flavour.

But if you screw it up, you’re going to have exploding bottles and a wet, sticky mess to clean up.

So don’t screw it up. Here’s how.

Image courtesy The Growler

DO…

Read the label. If you see things like “Brewer’s Reserve,” “Vertical” or the vintage year is listed on the label, this is a good indication the beer is designed to be cellar aged. Other beers, like Granville Island’s totally legit Cellar Series, spell it out for you pretty plainly. If there’s an expiration date on the beer, drink it ASAP.

DON’T…

Cellar a beer without drinking one first. I’ve developed the habit of buying two bottles of any beer I find I think might benefit from an extended stay in the cellar—one for now, one for later. That way I can determine if it’s appropriate for aging and so I can see how the flavour changes over time.

DO…

Consider aging these beers. Strong beers, malt-forward beers, barrel-aged beers, Brett-fermented beers, imperial stouts, barleywines, pretty much anything Belgian, traditional sours (as opposed to kettle sours), beers with lots of residual sweetness, bottle-conditioned beers and beers that explicitly tell you to age them.

DON’T…

Age these other beers. Hop-forward styles like IPAs, anything hazy, light lagers, beers that are lower in alcohol, very dry beers, anything fresh hopped, most commercial beer.

DO…

Look for bottle-conditioned beers. Bottle-conditioned beer gets a little added kick of yeast and sugar to carbonate the beer in the bottle. These beers are ideal for aging, as the yeast will continue to ferment (at a glacial pace, mind you) and eat up any oxygen that might sneak past the bottle cap. Most Belgian beers are bottle conditioned, which is why they have such long shelf lives. Naturally, so is Dageraad’s entire lineup.

DON’T…

Let your beer get too warm (or too cold). The optimal temperature for aging beer is between 10 C and 15 C, with high ABV beers (7% and above) towards the top end of that range. Because the beer you’re storing is likely unpasteurized, that means the yeasts will still be working away. If stored at too high a temperature, like a closet that gets hot in the summer, the yeasts will become active, chewing up any residual sugars and pooping out more alcohol and carbon dioxide. That’s a recipe for a gusher. You do not want to wear the contents of a bottle of cherry lambic all over your nice white shirt.

Meanwhile, store the beer in too cold a temperature, and nothing will happen at all. It’s all about consistently staying in that Goldilocks zone. Personally, I keep my beers in an unheated corner of my basement where the temperature stays a balmy 12 C all year round.

DO…

Serve the beer at the temperature you’ve stored it at. You want to be able to taste the complexity of the beer, after all, and flavour diminishes with temperature. If you serve a Westvleteren 12 that’s been aged for five years at 2 C, I’m going to find you, and I’m going to slap you.

DON’T…

Expect radical changes in flavour. Typically, the changes that occur with aging are subtle, but significant. Barrel-aged beers will generally mellow with age, with tannic astringency becoming less pronounced. Hop bitterness will fade, while beers fermented with Brettanomyces will tend to clean up over time. You might notice more balance to the beer’s flavour; sours taste less acidic, roasted malts become less acrid and beers with a high alcoholic content will become less “hot.” But don’t expect a completely new beer.

DO…

Look for established releases. Beers that have been around for years like Vancouver Island Brewing’s annual run of Hermannator or most Belgian beers have well demonstrated shelf stability. The new brewery down the street with its first-ever barrel- aged release? Not so much. You have a higher likelihood of getting a gusher with these beers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment with them, though.

DON’T…

Lie your bottles flat. Beer isn’t wine, so you don’t need to keep it contact with the cork. Keeping the bottle upright will allow the yeast will settle out of the beer at the bottom over time. Even if the beer bottle has a cork, keep it upright, as it may take on flavours of the cork if the beer is in contact with it.

DO…

Open your beer over the sink. Sometimes, despite all your best efforts to treat your beer right, it just doesn’t want to behave and you’re left with a gusher. It happens. Cellaring beer is unpredictable, especially with unstable cellaring temperatures or new releases.

Aim away from the face.

DON’T…

Expose your beers to light. Beer is photosensitive and glass bottles let in light, so box up those beers and turn off the lights unless you want that Founders KBS to taste like Pepé LePew’s butthole.

DO…

Share your beers! The best part of aging beers is discovering how the beer’s flavour has changed over time. So invite some friends over, crack a few bottles, and share the experience. Better yet, do a monthly bottle share! Fun!

DON’T…

Leave your bottles for too long. Age your cellar-appropriate beers for at least a year, but beyond that, it’s up to you. Most will hit their sweet spot at around three years. Some Belgian varieties like lambic or gueuze can be aged for 10 years or more. But once again, beer is not wine. An imperial stout that’s been aged for decades will probably taste like wet cardboard and meaty farts.

DO…

Experiment! Aging beer isn’t an exact science, so have some fun with it!

The Winter 2018 issue of The Growler is out now! You can find B.C.’s favourite craft beer guide at your local brewery, select private liquor stores, and on newsstands across the province. 

• Rob Mangelsdorf is a Certified Cicerone, BJCP beer judge and editor of The Growler. He also enjoys hoarding beer in his basement until he can force it on unsuspecting houseguests and talking about himself in the third person.