Just about everyone is familiar with the concept of a wine cellar: a cool, dark place where wine is stored as it ages. But have you ever heard of a beer cellar? Cellaring or aging beer is not a something that the average craft beer drinker, much less the average beer drinker, has thought about.
There are several reasons why aging beer is a foreign concept to most. First, most beer does not age well. In fact, most beer begins to spoil within a year or so which is why many brewers have freshness or “born on” dates on their bottles or cans. Hops break down over time and can make a perfectly good beer taste like monkey butt.
The secret to keeping a beer for a long time is to start with a high-alcohol beer (8% minimum) that is on the malty/sweet side. The higher alcohol and lower hops content makes these beers less susceptible to the curse of the monkey butt. Another thing that helps elude the curse is storing the beer at the proper temperature.
Which brings to another reason why beer aging is not commonplace. You to keep the beer in the dark at constant cellar temperatures, 50° – 60° F. Vacillating temperatures invite premature spoilage, as does exposure to light, which breaks down a chemical in the hops into a chemical found in skunk spray. If you’ve ever had “skunky” beer, chances are it was exposed to light for too long or “lightstruck.” If you have a cellar or basement that maintains a fairly constant temperature, you’ve got it made. Otherwise, you’ll need to invest in a cellaring refrigerator or convert a fridge to operate at cellar temperatures.
Perhaps the biggest reason you’ve never thought about aging beer has to do with culture. While wine is seen as a valuable commodity that can serve as an investment, the culture of beer has traditionally been barbecue, football, and frat parties. The large beer conglomerates have perpetuated this image to market inexpensive, tasteless beverages to those looking for a cheap buzz. The craft beer movement is slowly but surely changing this and increasing numbers of of the drinking public are waking up to the fact that beer can be more than a delivery vehicle for alcohol.
So where do you find beers suitable for aging? Skip the corner liquor store and head to a store that specializes in carrying a large variety of beers. You can also go directly to the source. Many small breweries make big, malty beers that can handle long-term storage. They are often sold as limited edition or short run brews. They typically come in larger bottles and often use corks instead of caps. You can expect to pay from $10 up to over $100 per bottle.
When you find a good candidate for aging, you should buy several; open one immediately and make a detailed note of the flavor profile. Open another in a year or so and compare the taste. If it seems to be getting funkier with age, you may want to reconsider that beer as a viable candidate for aging. Otherwise, wait another year or two to open another. Because beer aging is realtively new and the beers are often not produced more than once, you aren’t likely to find a guide for how long the beer can be stored. Anywhere from one to three years is a good guess though some could potentially last 10 years or more. Look at it as an long, slow adventure. After all, a really good beer is worth waiting for.