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Feel free to skip this mumbo jumbo and cut to the chase.
I’ve been a “craft beer enthusiast” (re: I enjoy drinking good beer and call it a hobby) for some time now… Before starting Small Batch Glassware I co-founded a beer trading and cellaring platform called The Beer Exchange, and even before that, I wrote articles about my local craft beer scene. So it should come as no surprise that I spend too much time thinking and writing about beer.
Beer cellaring and trading are the two most common “sub-hobbies” that exist in the beer community. When I talk to someone about beers I’m holding onto for a special occasion or a vertical I’m building, I often hear “you can age beer? I thought beer had to be consumed fresh!” While it’s true that most beer should be consumed as soon as possible, building up a cellar and aging beer is a fun and rewarding hobby most beer enthusiasts graduate to at some point.
Most of the articles I’ve read on cellaring are either too basic, overly complicate things, or don’t provide the practical advice needed to get started. That’s why I put together this guide to cellaring beer.
Most beer is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible, however, certain styles of beers can develop interesting, nuanced changes over time as they age. For this reason, some craft beer enthusiasts decide to purchase beer with the explicit purpose of holding onto it over time to see how it changes.
There is no exact list of beers or styles you can and can’t age, but there are some basic guidelines to help you decide if it’s a good idea to hold onto a beer or not.
“The higher the ABV and the darker the beer, the more likely it can be aged.”
I like to point to beers like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA or Founder’s Devil Dancer as examples of beers that can be aged that don’t “follow the rules” outlined above. These are both “Triple IPAs” (a weird style to begin with, but that’s another story) but the fact remains they are IPAs that people often age for years.
Just because you can age a beer doesn’t mean you should….
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve purchased two bottles, opened one fresh, and then sat on another for 2-3 years only to open it and be disappointed. The fact is some beers just don’t change all that much (or sometimes get worse).
It’s a good idea to check the label. Often times brewers bottle and sell their beer (even their barrel-aged releases) at the exact time they believe they are ready for consumption.
There are certain conditions and best practices for storing your beer for long periods of time.
Some people have elaborate setups and temperature-controlled rooms dedicated to their beer collections. If you have the space and ability to do that, more power to you. However, I have found that for a lot of people (including myself) the ideal conditions for cellaring beer can be hard or downright impossible to achieve in a smaller place like an apartment. I tell people the general guideline is:
“Keep your beer out of the sun and at a cool, consistent temperature.”
Again I’ll stress two things. Keep your beer at a consistent temperature on the cooler side and avoid sunlight at all costs. If you do that you should be ok.
Some friends of mine have small rooms, extra closets, or even sections of their basement dedicated to their beer collection. Anywhere really that can be kept cool and away from sunlight. In the past I’ve maintained my cellar in my closet on some shelves. Right now my cellar is simply a few racks in my room.
There are a lot of options for storing your beer that range from custom-built coolers to boxes in the closet. You’re most likely going to adopt whatever method works best for your given space and the size of your collection. The most popular storage options I’ve seen are:
“In general corked beers should be stored on their side and all others should be stored upright.”
Some people ask me if they need to store the beer horizontally or vertically. Overall that doesn't matter much if you’re cellaring cans or normally capped bottles. However, for beers with corks, it’s a good idea to age it on its side if possible to prevent the cork from drying out.
There are lots of tools, apps, and websites you can use for this. I use BEX whereas some people just use Google Sheets or Excel. Trust me you’ll eventually need one so pick something and just keep it up to date.
This is the most fun part of aging and cellaring beer - getting to experience how a beer changes over time. Sometimes the change is extremely nuanced, whereas others will taste like totally different beers compared to having it fresh. But what exactly is going on inside the bottle that causes the change?
Most of the time no new flavors being created during the aging process, instead you’re experiencing how the existing flavors in the beer fade or evolve over time at various rates to meld into a new and often distinctly different flavor profile. The exception is with some bottle-conditioned beers where the yeast continues to ferment inside the bottle, which can create new flavors as the yeast feed on the residual sugars.
How your beer is going to change over time is a function of what ingredients are in it. Here are some general guidelines for how a beer will age:
This is the reason why aging can be such a fun adventure!
I’ll give you an example of one of my favorite beers, Hunhpu’s Imperial Stout from Cigar City Brewing. I’ve been fortunate enough to have this beer - a stout is brewed with cacao nibs, cinnamon, vanilla, and ancho and pasilla chiles - numerous times throughout the years. I’ve also done multi-year “vertical” side-by-side tastings which provide the perfect opportunity to see the effects time has on it.
In my personal opinion, Hunahpu is best enjoyed fresh or at the one year mark. Why? I’m a fan of peppered stouts and I enjoy the amount of heat and kick the ancho and pasilla chiles give off and how that balances the sweetness of the beer imparted by the vanilla. Since peppers fade much more quickly than vanilla, the beer becomes sweeter and less pepper-forward as time goes on.
Doing a side by side comparison of a one-year-old Huanahpu and a fresh bottle will be a really fun experience and you’ll notice the nuanced change. Doing a side-by-side comparison of a 5-year-old bottle and a fresh bottle will be like drinking a totally different beer (and not in a bad way).
This is the reason why aging beer can be so much fun. Being able to open up a 5 year vertical of a favorite beer and experience the nuance change over time is a fun and rewarding experience.
There is no set amount of time beer can or should be aged. Overall it depends completely on the specific beer as well as your personal preferences. There are some very rudimentary guidelines, but I’ve never adhered to these in any specific way.
When it comes time to drink some of the beer you’ve been holding onto, make sure to let the beer sit in the bottle or can for a few hours before you open it. Often times sediment in the beer will “settle” as it ages, and then when you take it from your cellar (where it’s been sitting for month or years) and move it to the fridge, it’s going to get agitated.
Once you put the beer in the fridge to get to serving temperature, let it sit for an hour or so before opening it so the sediment can re-settle before pouring.
I had to include a section here on “verticals” since it’s pretty tightly engrained into the cellaring hobby. Often times people are aging a specific beer for a certain number of years to see how it changes over time, however, sometimes people are building out collections or sets of beers to enjoy at the same time or for a special occasion.
Most of the time when people say they’re doing a “vertical” of a beer, is a tasting of the same beer from multiple years. For example:
This would be a “tree year vertical of Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout.”
When you’re doing a multi-year vertical of the same beer you should work from the oldest to the youngest beer. In this case, you would start with the 2018 and work your way to the 2020 bottle.
Often times the term “vertical” is used to talk about tasting a set of different beers that are part of a “set.” There are two very common forms of this.
Sometimes breweries release a series of beers that all have a common theme, and people like to try all of them during a single tasting. The Bruery and Cycle Brewing are both great examples of this, with their respective "weekday series."
The Bruery has...
Cycle's approach is a bit simpler:
It’s important to note that sometimes these series are specifically defined, and other times they’re loosely tied together. In these situations, people choose the order based off the names (ex: starting with Monday and going through the week) or they choose to go in order of the least intense flavors to the most intense so you don’t wear out your palate. This is general “best practice” as well for when you’re doing bottles shares or tasting - start with the least intense beer in your lineup (ex: Pilsner) and move towards the more intense flavors (ex: sours or barrel-aged beers).
You get the idea. In this case, I would still recommend you work from older to newer beers, but in the end, you’ll probably end up going back and forth comparing the different beers over different years.
Sometimes breweries will release the same beer with different “variants” or twists. This might be a stout aged in various barrels or brewed with different ingredients. This is a pretty common practice and can be a ton of fun to sample. I’ll give an example of one of my favorite stouts from North Carolina by Olde Hickory. Event Horizon is a stout brewed with honey and aged in bourbon barrels. They started to do a “Spectrum Release” where they age the same beer in different barrels and with different adjuncts.
Another example from The Bruery would be the Black Tuesday variants they released to celebrate 10 years of Black Tuesday releases.
With verticals like this I always recommend starting with the least-intense flavors moving towards the more intense flavors. Sometimes that’s easy to determine and other times not. That’s fine and it’s only a general rule of thumb to help prevent palate fatigue.
Sometimes people think it’s really hard to get started and that they need to have access to really rare or expensive beer. That’s simply not the case.
My general recommendation is to build out a three-year vertical of one of your favorite beers.
At this point, you’ll have
Now go grab one of your 2020 bottles and open it up along with one of your 2021 bottles and try them both! Start with the 2020 bottle and compare it to how the 2021 one is drinking. Put the other ones away and wait another year.
Now the following year go out and purchase one more bottle. Now you should have:
This is where you get to enjoy a three-year vertical of one of your favorite beers! See if you can pick out how the beer has changed over time. What flavors are different in each of them? What year did you like most? Now you’ll know whether you want that beer to be fresh or with a bit of age and can buy and cellar more as needed.
Here are some beers that are relatively easy to find throughout the USA that you can start with:
Don’t be afraid to try some local beers as well!
Sometimes breweries or bottle shops will do special “cellar sales” where they will sell multiple years of the same beer. Others simply have multiple years of the same beer available! If you’re keen to try this and don’t want to wait years to experience the vertical, this might be a solid option for you.
My favorite thing about building a vertical is getting to finally open and experience it. However, I can’t remember the last time - or if I ever - did that alone. I promise it’s way more fun (and practical) do make this a special occasion and invite some friends over to partake. If you’re up for it, you can ask them to bring some beer as well and turn it into a bottle share.
No matter what you do, remember to have fun!
Cheers, and don’t hesitate to shoot me an email with comments or questions!