Finding a primer on cellaring beer is pretty easy these days. A quick Google search will bring up results from the expected (beer rating sites, breweries, beer magazines) and somewhat unexpected (NPR recently had a blog post about cellaring beer). Most repeat the same basic info: cellar strong beers in a cool, dark space; put away multiple bottles and check how they’re aging every now and then; cellaring is an art, not a science; store beer upright (this last point was in debate for a while, but upright seems to be the consensus now). I’ve been cellaring beer for some time in a variety of places. In my old apartment it was under the sink, but for over two years they’ve been in the storage unit for my condo. A couple of special bottles were stored in my parents cold cellar that has a real consistent temperature. I still think of my cellar as relatively new and small (under 80 bottles), but I’ve learned a couple of things over the years – things that other articles on starting a cellar tend not to bring up.
One rule I’ve created for myself is to only cellar beers that I like when they’re young. There can be some exceptions – I may not love a beer because the alcohol is too hot, but this will ideally calm down when cellared. There have been times when I’ve bought two to four bottles of a beer with the idea of cellaring it, only to open one and find out that it wasn’t to my taste. Sometimes this can be amended if you can return the beer for a refund or pawn it off to an unsuspecting friend/relative. I have also cellared beers in hope they get better, but they rarely do. As someone with a finite amount of space to cellar beer (as most of us are), these duds just take up space of a more worthy beer. When possible, I now buy one bottle or seek out a beer on tap and then decide whether or not to buy more for the cellar, which also has the nice advantage of saving me some money. This isn’t always possible for special, limited release beers, so it’s not a foolproof system.
I’ve also learned that beer is pretty resilient. Most people don’t have ideal cellars. The temperature in my storage unit varies wildly, but never gets too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. I’ve come to accept that the temperature is beyond my control and so far it hasn’t been a problem. This might mean I won’t ever have a beer cellared for twenty years, but my luckily I’m also pretty impatient so that was never likely to happen anyway. At least it’s dark, dry and the temperature changes are gradual. A lot of people cellar beers in their apartment because the temperature is consistent, even though it is warmer than any article will tell you. Strong beers are big enough to withstand less than ideal situations. Don’t let a less-than-perfect space stop you from cellaring beer.
The recommendation to buy multiple bottles of a beer you want to cellar and then try it every so often (say, six months or one year) is a smart one, but it assumes your cellar has plenty of space and you have enough money to buy four bottles of lots of different beers. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions – do you want a lot of one beer or two bottles of many beers? I’ve often stocked up on cheaper beers from the LCBO (like Rochefort 8 and 10) – these smaller bottles take up less space and they’re also easier for me to drink one of compared to a bomber of a strong ale. I love St Bernardus Abt 12 and the Cuvee Van De Keizer that come into the LCBO at less than $10/bottle, but don’t need four bottles of each in my cellar (especially when they’re released in the LCBO every year). I might regret that decision when tasting them five years down the road, but I’d rather have the space now to cellar different beers.
It’s hard to talk about cellaring without talking about verticals. I love to take many different vintages of a beer and compare them, which has impacted picking which beers to cellar. If you’re thinking that you might want to do verticals at some point, start cellaring beers that you know will be in the LCBO every year. (Examples: Amsterdam Tempest, Nickel Brook Kentucky Bastard, Fuller’s Vintage Ale, as well as the beers listed in the last paragraph.) Trying to age beer for verticals means you have to allot space in your cellar for the future vintages as well as the present. This experience has always been worth it for the simple fact of seeing how a beer changes over time. Just don’t always expect the oldest bottle to be the best.
There are lots of websites out there that can help you track your cellar. I keep mine listed in an online spreadsheet that includes the numbers of bottles, what year it was bottled and when to drink it by (sometimes this is listed on the bottle, other times you may have to make up a time – say three or five years). This helps me make sure that beers are less likely to spoil because they’ve been cellared for too long. I’ve also started to use Cellar HQ, because it is easier for people to see when setting up trades (you can view my cellar).
My last recommendation is to view your cellar as always evolving. I’ve reached my limit for space, which means that beers must come out whenever new beers go in. Now that it has been building for a number of years, there is always something down there that is ready to drink. Some of the beers down there are for special occasions, but I also have plenty that can be open anytime (as long as there are a couple of people to help me drink it). Don’t place the beers on a pedestal just because they’ve been cellared – they are meant for enjoyment and sharing, just like any other beer.
Best of luck in building your cellar!
Excellent post and a lot of information I will use. Moving to a place with a decent sized basement soon and lots of shelving storage space so I had already been considering the possibility of cellaring a few of the choice local brews I have available to me. Do you recommend keeping the bottles in a closed off structure like a chest or would they be alright in an area that gets some light, but not constant light?
It depends on the type of light. You definitely don’t want any sunlight coming from a window. It’s UV light that damages beer, so bulbs that don’t emit UV light are fine.