To Cellar or Not To Cellar
Written By: Zack Morris on 06/04/2015
To Cellar Or Not To Cellar…Is It A question?
"To cellar, or not to cellar: is it a question?;
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer,
The temptations and patience of outrageous aging,
Or to take arms against a sea of oxidation,
And by opposing end of UV Rays? To Cellar: To Wait?"
What may be my terrible rephrase from a classic Shakespeare sonnet does raise the question in today's cellaring and hoarding craft beer movement…
"Should we as craft beer consumer's put these beers in our cellars and closets without instructions from the brewmasters? If there are no instructions from the brewery, should we take it upon ourselves to save, age, and possibly make these rare masterpieces 'better' or 'different'?" Or could we be making them worse and tying up our beer money and storage space for no good reason?
I can only imagine the show...Tonight on A&E; "Craft Beer Hoarders", He drinks cheap mouthwash bottles, downs Bud Light, and chugs knock-off Nyquil, because he just can't find the right occasion to open one of his 800 bottles of rare white whale beers going back many years."
Bourbon County, KBS, Dark Lord, Pliny The Elder (Wait, you aged an IPA for 4 years, ugh, that's a whole other intervention).
For those who aren't sure, most Brewers and other Beer experts recommend aging beers under these general guidelines:
- Belgians, Stouts, Porters, Barleywines, and Scotch Ales Over 8%.
- Sour Ale's of any ABV, (Due to the continuous work of the wild yeast/bacteria).
- No IPA's or any hoppy beers of any ABV, since hops degrade quickly, and should be consumed as soon as possible.
- Cellared Beers should be aged in dark areas and as close to 55 degrees Fahrenheit as possible with low to no humidity.
Oxygen is the main contributor to a change in beer when you age it. Regardless of the quality of the brewery, there is likely some oxygen in the headspace or somewhere. This oxygen reacts with the beer in interesting ways. In darker and stronger beers, the oxidation creates notes of dark fruit (figs, cherries) and even notes of sherry and toffee over time as well as turning the beer a darker color in the process. Often if a beer tastes too alcoholic/'hot' when fresh, aging can take that edge off and smooth out the alcoholic kick over time.
This change is most noticeable in styles like English Barleywine - actually, many experts indicate that beers such as JW Lees Harvest Ale, Gale's Prize Old Ale and Thomas Hardy Ale to be three of the beers that show the most impressive and delicious changes when aged (unfortunately, Hardy's and Gale's are no longer produced). American Barleywines also take on these delicious fruity and sherry flavors over time, but their hop bitterness fades into a sweetness as well - so if you like the bitterness and hoppiness of American Barleywines, you're best to drink those fresh. As a side note, I like consider beers like Samichlaus (14%, Austria) in this group because although it's technically a Doppelbock, it has a lot of the similar profiles of a great English Barleywine and ages very well.
Some great examples of American Barleywines are Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (9.6%, California), Stone Old Guardian (11%, California), Three Floyd's Behemoth (10.5%, Indiana), Brooklyn Monster (10.1%, New York).
Great examples of English Barleywines are JW Lees Harvest Ale (11.5%, England), Deschutes Mirror Mirror (11%, Oregon), and Against the Grain London Balling (12.5%, Kentucky).
Stouts & Porters
The oxidation effects very dark beers such as imperial stouts in a very similar way as it does barleywines, but sometimes the changes are more subtle due to the fact that these beers are already very complex - they typically already have figs, dark cherries, chocolate… So, while they age very well, the improvement from oxidation may be a little more difficult to pick up than the more straightforward barleywine. Keep in mind too that some breweries bottle beer to be consumed fresh. The higher the ABV, the better something will hold up over time - due to this, there aren't a lot of standard porters that fit into this category, but if you find one, set it aside for a while and give it a shot.
Some great examples are Founders KBS (11.2%, Michigan), Goose Island Bourbon County (13.8%, Illinois), North Coast Old Rasputin (9%, California), Stone Imperial Russian Stout (10.6%, California), Three Floyd's Dark Lord (15%, Indiana), Dark Horse Plead the 5th (11%, Michigan), Sierra Nevada Narwhal (10.2%, California).
Aging a sour ale can be a bit of a coin flip. If the brewer bottle conditioned the beer with sour yeast, meaning that the beer wasn't very sour when it was put in the bottle but they added sour yeast so that it would slowly sour over time, aging is a great idea. This is not the case for all sour beer. A Gueuze, for example, is a blend of one year, two year, and three year old Lambic (the base beer for most sour ales). So, a Gueuze has already been aged for you whereas a plain Lambic or Flanders Red Ale that is bottled with the original yeast will continue to mature over time (and likely become more sour).
Some examples are: New Belgium La Folie (7%, Colorado), Rodenbach Grand Cru (6%, Belgium), Cantillon Gueuze 100% (5%, Belgium), Lindemans Cuvee Rene (5.5%, Belgium), Boon Oude Gueuze (6.5%, Belgium), Drie Fonteinen Oud Gueuze (6%, Belgium).
Aging an IPA (or similarly hoppy beer) is never a good idea, unless you're doing it just to see what happens or you just don't like hops. Hops fade very quickly in beers and they fade much faster if they aren't stored cold. A one month old HopSlam in the fridge will have a lot more punch than a one month old HopSlam that was stored on a room-temperature shelf. If you do happen to want to store something that is very hoppy (like a Double IPA or Am. Barleywine), make sure that it's nowhere near any ambient light as the hops will eventually skunk, ruining the beer.
Cellaring is a personal choice just like flavor preference, beer style choice, and where and why you love craft beer. Some love these age-able beers fresh and others love to see what time will do. This is another great thing about the craft beer movement…While there may be guidelines, there are no set rules, and every consumer can do what they want with their beer. I personally like to purchase two of any beer I want to age. I'll have one fresh and make a mental note of what I thought of it, then stash the second one away for a later date so that I can see how it changes over time.
In my opinion, as long as you enjoy your craft beer and are comfortable with your purchase, then that should be all that matters. If you're feeling like giving cellaring a try, go for it, but hopefully you can go into the process with a little bit more direction.
To finish the thought on a Shakespeare sonnet:
"No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?"
To each their own! I just hope great beers aren't being saved waiting for the "perfect" time to open. These perfect moments rarely come around, and should be enjoyed with family and friends! Having a closet with a world class cellar list is impressive, sharing them with the world…maybe that's the answer to The Question!