It started on a recent Saturday with a sale at the home improvement store and ended after midnight with a fully organized beer cellar and a previously unrecognized weight off my shoulders.
My basement cache of special beer waiting for the right time had become an albatross, overflowing the two small shelves into haphazard, unsorted four- and six-pack cartons and case boxes on the floor. Hardly a beer temple befitting a baron. Because it was so unsightly and difficult to navigate, I only went into the furnace room to deposit beer, not to retrieve it for actual drinking.
And drinking, one may need to be reminded, is the entire point of beer.
En route to my newfound cellar serenity, I had some minor epiphanies that might help you take charge of your beer stash, or start one up, if one were so inclined.
Not a lot of beers age well. Generally, certain beers are aged because the flavors tend to meld together into a more cohesive sensory package than fresh beer. One or more of the flavors and aromas of hops, malt, yeast and alcohol may be sharp or out of balance in a fresh barleywine but meet in a more comfortable middle after anywhere from a few to several months. But don’t just throw any old beer in the cellar.
There are two classes of beers that age well: strong ales and lagers, and wild or sour beers. The former category covers big (above 8 percent ABV or so) stouts, barleywines, doppelbocks and some Belgian and Scotch ales. If any beer was barrel-aged before release, that’s a pretty good indicator it’s cellarable.
In the latter, any beers that contain the “wild” Brettanomyces yeast, as well as traditional wood-aged sour beer such as lambic or Flanders red, are good cellar candidates. These beers often evolve significantly as they age because they are literally alive — the wild yeast and bacteria that define their styles can continue to ferment sugars in the bottle and excrete more (or different types) of the compounds that give them their distinctive taste. Beers made with the kettle souring technique contain the flavorful lactic acid that the Lactobacillus bacteria produced, but the bugs themselves are dead, so there’s no benefit in aging them.
Even these beers may not actually improve with age as much as just change. Hop aroma, flavor and bitterness will drop off, which often translates to a perceived sweetening of a beer like an imperial stout or barleywine. But so will the coffee character in that coffee stout, and that’s generally not considered beneficial, so don’t sit on those too long.
And if you prefer lagers, pale ales and IPAs, drink your beer fresh as the brewer intended and reserve that basement space for that CD collection you can’t quite part with yet.
Don’t put the whole four-pack in cellar
Drink at least one bottle fresh so you have a baseline for the beer you’re putting away. If you’re feeling ambitious, take notes and compare when it comes time to drink the cellar bottles.
Put it in the right room
The biggest enemies of your packaged beer are heat and light, so “keep it in a cool, dark place” is in play here.
When I moved into my house four years ago, I was wary of placing my cellar (seriously winnowed for the move) in the furnace room, but I keep a thermometer in there and I’ve never found it above 70 degrees, even in winter when the heat is really on. Warmer temperatures may accelerate the aging process.
Pick the right shelves
Beer weighs a lot, so depending on the size of your shelves, they’ll probably need to be heavy-duty. Ideally your unit will have adjustable shelves to ensure spacing that’s the proper height for the bottles. And be sure to leave enough room for plenty of head space above the bottles — not just longneck but bomber and 750-milliliter height. That’ll allow you to safely pull out a bottle that’s not right at the front of the shelf, or put fresh beer in the back of the shelf.
I went overzealous on my shelving and bought a unit with 24-inch-deep shelves, which turned out to be major overkill. I lost more space than I wanted to in the relatively small furnace room and, even with all the inventory, ended up with lots of empty space in the back of the shelves. I keep a small, bright flashlight nearby for investigating the back reaches of the cellar.
And make sure the shelves are flat and smooth. My old shelving units had those heavy wire shelves that you often found in old refrigerators, and the bottles were very wobbly on them until I cut particle board sheets to cover them. The new unit has half-inch particle board that lies directly in the shelf frame.
Organize the beer
Whether it’s by style, by brewery or by age, devise a system that makes sense to you, and stick to it. I decided to go by style: The top shelf is all barrel-aged stouts, the second shelf barleywines and standard imperial stouts, the third shelf sours and Belgian ales, and the bottom shelf everything else — scotch ales, strong ales, a whole bunch of Lakefront Brewery’s excellent barrel-aged ales and lagers and a few oddballs.
The shelves were stocked with the oldest beer in the front, which presents a logistics challenge when restocking, but it’s worth it to avoid bottles getting lost for too long. Some beers (Bell’s Expedition Stout, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, just about every Central Waters Brewers Reserve beer) had their own row or rows. Others were mixed rows with no more than one or two of a single beer.
Some beer geeks far more serious than me have spreadsheets dedicated to their cellar inventory, available on a handy tablet or laptop that can be browsed by a surely impressed visitor.
Label your beer
The most time-consuming portion of sorting through my haphazard cellar was spent squinting at bottled-on dates. The difference between 2014 and 2017 bottles of Great Lakes Blackout Stout is significant for cellar purposes, and you want to have that information front and center when making a decision about what to drink.
Many cellarkeepers choose to make this plain on bottles that don’t have it clearly displayed on the label. Even if it is on the label, if it’s not on the neck of the bottle, it’s tough to see unless the bottle is in the front of the shelf.
Masking tape and a Sharpie with a “18,” or even better “6/18,” works nicely. If you’re less concerned about the aesthetics of your bottle, you can do as I do and write the vintage directly on the neck. Sharpie sells metallic-tone markers that contrast nicely on brown bottles. Make sure to use bottled-on dates, not the date you purchased it, and you may want to consider a “drink by” date as well.
Devise a system for getting beers out of the cellar
I don’t know about you, but I don’t go in the cool, dark places of my house too often. So even with several hundred dollars worth of beer, I’m often fighting “out of sight, out of mind.” To fight this, I have a “cellar shelf” in my beer fridge with goodies intended to be drunk in the near term.
In my reorganization I also started a list of beers on a notebook headed with “TICK TOCK.” These beers — 2014 imperial stouts, a bottle from the 2013 release of the out-now New Glarus Imperial Weizen, way too many 2015 coffee-infused Weyerbacher Sunday Morning Stouts — need to be drunk soon. I may convert a portion of the small shelf next to the main cellar shelf to a staging area for these beers.
The key, of course, is to keep this list current, and every few weeks I plan to take a few minutes to put just-bought beer into the cellar and sweep through the inventory for particularly dusty bottles.
Drink the beer
And all of that beer in the cellar, it’s on a clock. With very few exceptions, beer doesn’t improve much after two or three years. I think most barrel-aged stouts hit their peak within 12 months of their bottling.
And, more important, don’t lose sight of the reason your cellar exists. It’s for aging beers to drink, not hoarding. There’s a fine line here, and when you acquire a special beer, you’re going to want to save it for an equally special occasion. It’s very likely that day will never come, so a good way to stay on the right side of that is to lower the bar for what you consider an occasion.
Friend’s engagement? ‘14 Bourbon County Stout. Beautiful Saturday evening on the patio with the husband? ‘17 Central Waters Cassian Sunset. Packers vs. Bills? ‘17 3 Sheeps Veneration. Tuesday after work? ‘16 Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout.
This may mean not sharing what you consider a special beer on exactly the right special occasion. But you will soon add new special beers to the cellar, and those special bottles will be ready when that special occasion comes.