We're ditching our galoshes and dodging the cold in favor of a Big Night In all month long. Follow our lead right this way.
Beer trends may ebb and flow—session IPAs, sour ales and "culinary" beers infused with wacky foods are all having a moment—but one that by its very nature will be around for quite some time is beer cellaring.
Aging beer encourages simple flavors to expand and evolve right inside the bottle, resulting in uniquely delicious brews. But there's more to building and maintaining a vintage beer collection than forgetting about the tallboys in the back of your fridge. Here are the basics to help you get started.
What kind of beer should I cellar? In general, dark, boozy ones with high alcohol age well—think barleywines, imperial stouts and Baltic porters—as do sour beers that are brewed with natural preservatives like aged hops (Belgian lambics, for example). Many saisons and "farmhouse" ales inoculated with a yeast called Brettanomyces are good choices, too, because the the yeast will continue to develop and shift the beer's flavors while the bottle is being stored.
Avoid cellaring beers that are best consumed fresh—this is most beers, but especially crisp pilsners and hoppy IPAs. Their ephemeral aromas and delicate flavors weaken within weeks and are obliterated after months.
A glass of beer & caps and cages
But what if I don't have a cellar? A decent cellaring space can be a simple box in the back of a closet, a high-tech climate-controlled room or almost anything in between. There are a few things you should do to create friendly beer-aging conditions though.
First, it should be dark. Direct sunlight initiates a chemical reaction in beer that causes it to quickly become "skunked." Second, keep it cool but not cold. Fridge-like conditions inhibit beer's ability to evolve over time, while high temperatures and broad fluctuations can lead to off flavors.
Mike Donk, a craft beer photographer, was lucky enough to discover a built-in root cellar in his 100-year-old farmhouse near Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he stores upward of 400 bottles. "It stays a near-constant 50 to 55 degrees in there," he says, an ideal temperature for aging beer.
Bottle position is important, too. "Most of my bottles are stored upright," Donk says, which minimizes contact between the liquid and the air inside the bottle. It also keeps the beer from touching the bottle's crown, which can deteriorate over time. Donk lays his corked-and-caged bottles horizontally, like wine, because "that's how they do it at Cantillon," he says, the revered lambic brewery in Brussels.
Alright, I'm on board. How do I get started? Set a budget and buy as many different bottles as you can. Stock up on multiple bottles of a single beer—part of the fun of cellaring is to taste the same beer as it ages over time. Luke Schmuecker of The Beer Exchange, a beer tracking, cellaring and trading website, recommends buying three bottles of any beer you intend to cellar. "Open one immediately," he says. "Then open another bottle of that same beer six months later. Note how it's changed, and from there, you can determine how the beer might evolve going forward."
Five Beers to Start Cellaring Now
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine
Bigfoot is the everyman cellaring beer—it's inexpensive, available at most supermarkets and loaded with huge malts and hops that become sherry-like with age. $3 per 12-oz bottle
This funky and strong Belgian farmhouse ale is brewed with Brettanomyces and aged in red-wine barrels. It can be cellared for up to three years, but it's also great right now. $20 per 750-ml bottle
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
A favorite pastime of beer geeks everywhere is to do a vertical tasting (sampling successive vintages back to back to back) of this highly anticipated release. $6 per 12-oz bottle
Stone Enjoy After 12.26.15
An antidote to its own ultra-fresh Enjoy By series of IPAs (which prints the expiration date in big, bold numerals right on the front of the bottle), Stone's recently released Enjoy After IPA is primed with Brettanomyces and intended for aging until at least December 26, 2015. $13 per 22-oz bottle
Gueuzerie Tilquin Gueuze Tilquin à l'ancienne
This supremely tart and sour beer, a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambic, is surprisingly mellow. Brewed with aged hops, it will age beautifully for many, many years. $24 per 750-ml bottle
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