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Starting a beer cellar: Where and how to age your beers

Beer bottles line a shelf in a San Francisco, CA, liquor store. Your cellar may simply be beer on shelves or beer in boxes -- just don't age the IPA.
Beer bottles line a shelf in a San Francisco, CA, liquor store. Your cellar may simply be beer on shelves or beer in boxes -- just don't age the IPA.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Now that you know why you’d want to start a beer cellar (because really, why not?), and which beers are most worthy to gather dust, the final piece of the puzzle is how to store said beers for the long haul. Aging beer is not a science – at least not yet – so there are plenty of varying opinions on the proper storage temperatures and conditions for your beer, and it’s true that different beers age better at different temperatures.

Basically, though, everyone can agree that too cold is better than too hot for beer storage, and that a consistent temperature will prevent the premature aging and deterioration that frequent temperature swings can bring about. If you have the luxury of choosing a constant temperature for your beer cellar, 50 – 55 degrees Fahrenheit is often considered the sweet spot – not too hot, not too cold for the majority of beer styles.

Some aficionados age all of their beers under refrigeration, which will prevent premature deterioration but might mute or delay some positive flavor developments that slightly higher temperatures will bring on. Another concern with refrigeration is that the lack of humidity can dry out corks in bottles over time, but I’d take a spare, dedicated fridge any day over a room with uncontrollable temperature swings and potentially high temperatures.

Aside from heat, light and agitation are two other adversaries to watch out for in your beer cellar. Light can damage (and, in some cases, heat up) your beer over time, and, although a lesser concern, frequent agitation can stir up sediment in and deteriorate the quality of your vintage beers.

So what does this all mean for your beer cellar? Put it in the consistently coolest, darkest, least-frequented place you can find in your house or apartment. This may be a shelf in the guest room closet (note that closets on an interior wall of the house tend to have more consistent temps), an unused ice chest in the garage (put a good temperature controller on it and set it around 50 degrees if possible), or an actual basement or cellar, which, depending on depth and climate, can be tops for temperature, light, and agitation concerns.

A final point of contention for aging beer is whether to store the bottles upright or lay them down on their sides, like you would wine. The typical reasoning for laying beers down is that it prevents the corks from drying out, although synthetic and wax-impregnated corks are the norm nowadays and, in my experience, they don’t really need such treatment.

One of the arguments against laying beers down is that yeast and sediment in the bottle will come to rest on the side and form a film there over time. This makes it difficult to decant the beer off of the sediment when pouring, which is a must when it comes to serving vintage, bottle-conditioned beers (a few days in the refrigerator before serving always helps with settling out yeast and other detritus).

I also find it more efficient, space-wise, to store beers upright, and although I’ve encountered a few tough-to-remove corks, I’ve never had a dry or crumbling one that allowed the beer’s carbonation to escape or fell into pieces in the beer while being extricated. However, as in all things and especially in beer cellaring, do what works for you, or compromise and store capped beers upright and corked ones on their sides.

With that, I believe we’ve come to the end of our cellar tutorial – you now have all the tools necessary to age beers with aplomb. So age away, but don’t forget that beers are made for drinking, not collecting! If you wait too long to crack a special beer, the occasion you’ve been waiting for never seems to come, and you might just sit on a lovely beer right past its prime. (A Monday is a special enough occasion for me.) Just remember to taste and enjoy your vintage beers often, and your beer cellar – or closet, or ice chest – will be a smashing success.

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