Cellaring Beer – Change is the Only Guarantee
There is no doubt, the vast majority of beer should be drunk as fresh as possible. Hop flavors and aromas degrade. Oxidation can set in. Undesirable flavors can sometimes develop. Put simply, time is an enemy to most of what gets put out on the shelf.
As with most rules however, there exist some exceptions. There are in fact some beers in the world that can benefit from some extra time in the bottle under the right conditions. There are a few general criteria that one can follow to find beers worth cellaring. Outside of IPAs (which you want to drink fresh), beers that are very hoppy tend to hold up well as hops are a preservative and bitterness fades with time. Beers that are high in alcohol tend to fare well too. It can be fun to cellar beers that are released once a year and do a vertical tasting of multiple vintages to see how a beer changes over time. Lastly, sour beer can benefit from cellaring as well because the flavors produced by wild yeast and bacteria will continue to develop over time.
All of that said, I don’t do a ton of cellaring these days. I’m not categorically opposed to the concept, I’ve merely discovered that the costs usually outweigh the benefits in my case. Firstly, cellaring requires space. Lots of it. If you tuck away six bottles of the same beer year after year to build a vertical, the necessary space starts to add up. Do this with multiple beers and you’ve got a hoarding problem on your hands. Second, a lot of beers that are appropriate for cellaring come in large format bottles. I think beers like Firestone’s Anniversary releases are an absolute delight to drink, but putting down twenty-two ounces on my own would be a struggle (let alone beers like Black Tuesday, where a whole bottle might land you in the hospital). If I’m having a beer or two on school night, it’s probably a hoppy pale ale.
Lastly, I don’t do much cellaring these days because I don’t believe that most cellar-appropriate beers benefit all that much from cellaring. When people ask me whether or not they ought to cellar a beer I ask them whether or not they like that beer now. I ask this question because cellaring is a gamble. The only guarantee is that the beer will change in some fashion. It could change for the better. It could just as easily change for the worse.
In other words, if you like the way a beer tastes now, you should drink it now because your enjoyment is guaranteed. If there’s something you’d change about the beer, maybe you should lay it down for a while. For instance, if it’s a high alcohol beer and there are big notes of fusel alcohol, those will probably calm down a bit over time. If you have an American Barleywine that’s a bit too hoppy for you right now, that bitterness will probably fade. If that Brett Saison isn’t as funky as you want, it’ll likely dry out and get funkier. A lot of people are fond of laying down fruited Cantillon beers, but for my money, they taste their best within two years or less of bottling (as do most fruited sour beers). A lot people are fond of laying down barrel-aged beers, but one must be wary of too much oxidation, as these beers have already been exposed to lots of air during the barrel-aging process.
I’ll leave you with this summary. If you have the space, and you’re curious about how a beer a will change, or you think something undesirable about a beer may subside, cellar away. Just remember, the only guarantee is that time will make the beer different, not better.