Enter the Cellar

The Art of Cellaring Beer:

Image, Morgan Turner

Dustin Sepkowski tending to his flock. An old fridge, because of its insulation, can make a great cellar. Image: Morgan Turner

Ever had a beer that tasted like cardboard? That’s a stale beer – one that’s been left on the store shelf a few months too long. It’s a golden rule – beer is meant to be drank fresh. Right?

Actually, not always. And hidden amongst you is a small secretive subgroup of beer geeks who cellar their beer. Yes, cellar – like with wine. I’m one of them.

My first beer cellar was a camping cooler in a crawl space under my old house. I’d climb under there clutching a couple of special releases, tuck them away, and a few months (or years) later they’d re-emerge with much fanfare, and some interesting changes.

So why would you want to do this? There several reasons, but they hinge on the secret that some beers actually benefit from age. Rule number one is that it has to be Strong. “I don’t typically age anything unless it’s over 9%,” says Dustin Sepkowski, operations manager at 33 Acres brewing, and beer cellar maniac. “Though I’d say anything over 7% is a safe zone. You’ve got kind of figure out how long you can age it for, and it’s more or less a guessing game.” Sepkowski knows what he’s talking about. He keeps about 200 bottles stashed away.

As with many cases involving beer, there’s complicated chemistry involved. Hops degrade, the yeast eats itself, and oxidization (the cause of ‘cardboard’ flavour in stale beer) happens.

Flavour changes in beer according to a 1977 report by C.E. Dalgliesh

Flavour changes in beer according to a 1977 report by C.E. Dalgliesh

“There are arguments among some brewers that this is basically a fault. What you’re allowing is the beer to die and go bad. But a lot of guys just say that it changes. The hop presence goes out, the heat of the alcohol will sometimes balance out a little bit. It sort of comes to a nice medium level,” says Chris Bonnalie, beer supervisor at Legacy Liquor.

And that’s the key. Certain styles of strong beer – barley wines, imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales – can have extreme flavours when fresh. Left to sit a while, those flavours can mellow and blend together, creating something entirely different.

“There’s that special zone of when it’s ready,” says Sepkowski. “Those really harsh hop flavours that a lot of us enjoy have completely mellowed out and become quite floral and fruity… so you have this big beautiful barley wine that over years become more characteristic – rich and toffee and thick.”

For many who cellar, it’s about the fun of experimenting. “There’s a certain group of people who really enjoy being able to do a vertical tasting,” says Chris Bonnalie. Vertical tasting is trying beer from multiple years next to each other to see how they’ve changed. “They’ll buy two bottles. One for drinking, just to try that year, and one to put away. Or sometimes they’ll put away three or four,” he explains.

Many cellar suitable beers will have the date printed on the label. If not, it's a good idea to slap one on yourself.

Many cellar suitable beers will have the date printed on the label. If not, it’s a good idea to slap one on yourself.

Personally, I love the experimental aspect. I’ve thrown all sorts of random things into my cellar just to see what happens, with varying results (Spolier alert – IPAs get worse as the hops fade).

Then there’s the social element. “Sharing,” says Sepkowski, “that’s the fun part about cellaring. To find other friends that have cellars and share, exchange… You make a cool accomplishment and share it with others, and they share it with you.”

And that’s one of the best aspects of cellaring beer – it’s accessible to everyone. Let’s face it, most of us can’t afford to cellar wine, even if we wanted to. A bottle good enough to keep is probably pushing $100. But a bottle of beer ready for the cellar usually comes in at the $10-20 mark.

So why not give it a go? Start small, find a dark cool corner of your house, and sock a couple of big beers away. In a few years, you might just find yourself a connoisseur.

Do’s and dont’s of Cellaring Beer:

DO

– keep it at a cool, consistent temperature

– Pick beers over 7%

– Research! Sites like Ratebeer.com share others’ experiences

– Share!

 

DON’T

– Cellar IPAs

– let it sit in direct sunlight

– lay the bottles on their side

– Wait forever. Those beers are meant to be drank.

 

Before turning to journalism, Simon dabbled in many things. He earned an honours degree in political science, and still treats elections as if they’re the playoffs. He nearly started a brewery, and remains a committed beer geek with a well-stocked cellar of vintage brews. He was a cycling activist, who co-founded East Van Bike Polo and once pedalled from Amsterdam to Istanbul. He was (okay, still is) a big ol' nerd who loves pulp film and science fiction. Now, he writes about these things and others. And he's committed to bringing you one fine magazine all year long.

midnightsimon@gmail.com