I don’t include my basement on the house tour. It’s unfinished and cold. Spiders swarm. But under the dark and dusty stairs, you’ll find my beloved beer cellar.
Cellaring beer is a risky hobby. Your goal is to store the right beer, in the right place, for the right amount of time to allow oxidization and other chemical changes to enhance its flavour. Many beers are designed to be cellared, but most aren’t. If you do it right, your reward is richer, more complex flavours. Other times, your $15 bottle of beer ends up tasting like a rusty nail or wet cardboard.
Most craft beer should be consumed fresh. The story goes that high-hop beers were brewed to survive long sea trips, but modern beer knowledge says while the hops kept rot away, they weren’t aromatic or flavourful on the other side. “It’s like milk: store cold, drink fresh,” says Cameron Crerar, head brewer at Propeller Brewing Co. Another warning sign not to cellar is a best before date that’s only several months away.
Beer that cellar well are high alcohol (over 7%) with strong flavours. Think imperial stouts, strong porters, smoked beers, and barley wines. Start with the label. Beers described as “bottle conditioned” are packaged with active yeast that will continue to ferment in the bottle, shaping the beer’s flavour over time. Likewise, barrel-aged beer acquires flavours from the wood it conditions in. The wood flavours, along with any boozy alcohol flavour, should mellow over time.
The words “reserve” and “vertical” are the brewery asking you to store this beer. Most are annual releases. If you put a few away yearly and stay patient, you can do a vertical tasting, which means trying bottles from different years to see how they change over time. (Invite friends. Drinking multiple bombers of high-alcohol beer alone is less fun than it sounds).
Beer containing brettanomyces is a new addition to my cellar after 2 Crows Brewing Co. brewer Jeremy Taylor recommended it. He urges cellaring hoppy bretts, like his own Amateur Hour, released in November 2017. “It was released maybe four to five weeks after brew day and was dry hopped fairly heavily so had a very bright hop punch to go along with a subtle underlying funk,” he says via email. “The brightness of hops definitely faded, but the funk has ramped up a bit. It is a totally different beer, but no less enjoyable.” You can still find cans at the brewery.
Light from any source will cause unwanted chemical changes in your beer.
While some purists keep their best bottles lightly refrigerated over the years, it’s not necessary for the amateur beer hoarder.
Warmer temperatures will speed up changes in your beer, so you want to aim for 10–15°C. Find a spot that stays a consistent temperature between seasons. Once you pick your spot, don’t move it without a good reason. Beer isn’t a Fabergé egg, but jostling it will speed up oxidization and aging.
When I started saving beer, I wasn’t diligent with labelling and tracking. Now I have more than a few bottles of unknown age. A piece of masking tape with your purchase date (or better, ask the brewery for a production date) will let you know when to try your beer.
Advice on how long to wait is as varied as styles of beer, but the general rule is to buy a few bottles, try one immediately, one in six to eight months, one in a year, one in two years, and one in five (if you have that much self control). Keep notes on what the beer tastes like, and each bottle can become an adventure to see how it changes over time.
Must try beers: Buy now, drink later
Man of War (barley wine)
Tatamagouche Brewing Co. / 15.2%/ Tatamagouche, N.S.
Tata recently got its distiller’s licence, which means it can brew beer over 11.9%. English barley wine tends to be bluntly sweet, but this one features with notes of fruit and brandy barrel. Head brewer Matt Kenny says cellar it for even 6 months and the sharp edges will mellow. It’ll be a perfect bottle to share with (several) friends as you wave goodbye to winter next spring.
Ra Ra Rasputin (Organic Russian imperial stout)
Big Spruce Brewing / 10.5% / Nyanza, N.S.
Every year we see additional variations on this barrel-aged favourite. Glenora and Nicaraguan rum-barrel aged, aged on raspberries, orange peel. “I love the character brewer [Jeremy White] getting out of the bourbon barrels,” says Kenny. Depending on which year and which version you try, you’re in for coconut, coffee, and the roasty-toasty notes that make this a classic.