A practical guide to cellaring beer

Introduction to cellaring beer

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.


Table of Contents 


The Basics of Aging 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.

Beers Styles You Can Age

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.”

Styles of beers people often age:

  • Imperial Stouts and some Porters
  • Sours, Gueuzes, Lambics
  • Belgian Quads, Tripels, Dubbels
  • Barleywines and Strong Ales
  • Barrel-aged beers
  • “Reserve” and “Anniversary Series” beers
  • Beers with wild ale yeasts like lactobacillus, pediococcus, and brettanomyces
  • Some smoked beers

Beer styles you probably shouldn’t age:

  • IPAs, Pale Ales, dry-hopped or web-hopped beers
  • Hefeweizens, Wheat Beers, Blond Ales, Pilsners, Helles Lagers, Kolsch, etc.
  • Most Red Ales, Amber Ales, Brown Ales

There are always exceptions

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….

Remember 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.


How To Properly Cellar / Store Your Beer

There are certain conditions and best practices for storing your beer for long periods of time.

  1. Keep your beer out of sunlight
  2. Maintain a consistent temperature between 50 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit
  3. Corked beers should be aged on their side whereas “normal” capped or canned beers should be aged standing upright

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.

Where to store your beer

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.

Storage options for your cellar

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: 

  • Extra “beer fridges” in the garage - Great especially since they are temperature controlled.
  • Stackable wine racks - I purchased a set of these on Amazon and am using them now. Nice because as your collection grows you can add more shelves, but it also forces you to store everything horizontally.
  • Basic shelves - This is one of the most common methods. People often purchase various racks or shelving units and put them in the basement, closet, or available room.
  • Boxes in closets - Not the fanciest way to store beer, but there’s no shame in putting your bottles in boxes and tucking them away in the closet.

Vertical Versus Horizontal Storage

“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.

Keeping Track of Your Inventory

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.


How beer changes over time

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:

  • Sweetness will not fade from a beer, and in fact, sweet beers will most likely become sweeter over time as other flavors begin to mellow
  • Often times boozy beers that are “hot” (re: you can really taste the booze) will get more well-balanced over time and “mellow out”
  • As some beers like Belgian Quads age, it becomes harder and harder to pick out individual flavors and instead you experienced a “melding together” of flavors
  • Hops will start to fade almost immediately which is why IPAs and similar styles are supposed to be consumed as fresh as possible
  • Some flavors or adjuncts like peppers (ex: ancho chiles, habaneros, jalapeños, etc.) fade extremely quickly from beers
  • Other ingredients like coffee and cinnamon fade, but at much slower rate

This is the reason why aging can be such a fun adventure!

An example of how a beer ages over time

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.

How long can you age beer for?

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.

  • Most Belgians can be aged anywhere from 1 to 12 years
  • Barleywines and imperial stouts can be aged from 1 to 20+ years
  • Sours, Gueuzes, Lambics anywhere from 1 to 10 years
  • Porters anywhere from 1 to 5 years

Enjoying your beer

Allow beer to re-settle when you’re preparing to drink it

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.

What is a vertical tasting?

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.

Multi-Year Verticals

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:

  • Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (2020)
  • Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (2019)
  • Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (2018)

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.

Vertical “Series” of Beers

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. A great example of this would be the “weekday series” from The Bruery. This might look something like:

  • Grey Monday
  • Black Tuesday
  • Mocha Wednesday
  • PB & Thursday

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).

Sometimes people like to do multi-year and multi-beer verticals.

For example:

  • Grey Monday (2018)
  • Grey Monday (2017)
  • Black Tuesday (2018)
  • Black Tuesday (2018)
  • Mocha Wednesday (2018)
  • Mocha Wednesday (2017)

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.

Vertical “Variants” of Beers

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.

  • Spectrum 1: Bourbon barrels, with milk sugar & barrel-aged coffee
  • Spectrum 2: Brandy barrels, with figs, mint & chocolate
  • Spectrum 3: Bourbon barrels, with cherries & vanilla
  • Spectrum 4: Bourbon barrels, with cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla & habanero peppers

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.


How to get started with cellaring beer

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.

Start by building a 3-year vertical

My general recommendation is to build out a three-year vertical of one of your favorite beers.

  1. Choose one of your favorite stouts, ideally one that’s bourbon barrel-aged, higher in ABV, and you can buy multiple bottles of
  2. Buy 3 bottles of the beer (let’s say you start in 2020)
  3. Open one and drink it fresh! If you want, make some notes on it.
  4. Put the other two bottles in a box in your closet (remember, cool consistent temperature away from sunlight) and forget about them
  5. Next year (2021) buy 2 more bottles of the beer

At this point, you’ll have

  • 2 Bottles from 2020
  • 2 Bottles from 2021

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:

  • 1 Bottle from 2020
  • 1 Bottle from 2021
  • 1 bottle from 2022

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.

Good beers to start aging

Here are some beers that are relatively easy to find throughout the USA that you can start with:

  • KBS, CBS, or Breakfast Stout from Founders
  • 120 Minute IPA (this drinks like a barleywine anyway) or World Wide Sout from Dogfish Head
  • The Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine series

Don’t be afraid to try some local beers as well!

Other options for starting your cellar

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.


Remember, sharing is caring.

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!