The wonderful world of craft beer provides a multitude of choices. For every palate, there is a beer to match. I find especially intriguing the freshness dichotomy – IPAs are meant to drink right from the vat, or at least as fresh as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those high gravity, high ABV stouts who like to sit in dark, cellared environments for a few years before they are considered ready for consumption. Since I’m a stout guy, I’m hoping to help you separate the malt from the barrels with the ins and outs of aging and cellaring.
What should I age? How long should I age it for? How do I know when it’s “ready?” What type of environment works best for aging? All great questions that have already been addressed in other venues by other writers – more on that later. What I hope to do here is provide some guidance on how aging works best for YOU, and frankly, help you decide whether or not you want to go down the aging path. At the end of the journey, you want to be able to have an enhanced experience with a cellared stout that YOU enjoy, not one that others tell you that you should enjoy. However, to get there does require a bit of patience, some effort, some craft beer tasting along the way, and most importantly, time.
Before we get to the basics of cellaring, the first thing you need to do is get a handle on your personal likes and dislikes. Think about your perfect stout. Is there a specific stout or variant that you like, or do you like a combination of the the nuances from a few different Stouts? Is your ideal beer barrel-aged? If so, is it aged in bourbon, rum, cognac, rye or wine barrels? Are there variants? Fruits? Chocolate? Coffee? Spices?
If you are a stout veteran, you have this down. If you are just starting your stout journey – this is important – for now, your job is to sample as many stouts as you can to determine your flavor palette. One suggestion: buy a notebook and record your thoughts as you drink each beer, because if you don’t, you will either forget some of the important things or your tastings will start running together, and you won’t be able to make distinctions between some of them. Also, try to be consistent in your approach and control as many variables as you can. In my opinion, it’s best to do your taste testing at home. For many reasons, a bottled craft beer in your home can taste considerably different than the same beer on tap, in your favorite pub. For our purposes here, the goal is to determine exactly what you like – mouthfeel, aftertaste, carbonation, aroma – and what you don’t like. So, consistency is king.
Now that you have settled on preference, the next time you are at a bottleshop and you see a stout you want, buy three bottles of it. This is where your notes will come in handy. Drink one the same day or soon, take good, concise notes on the tasting, and cellar the other two. In six months, drink another one, take notes, and compare it to the first one. In six more months (one year after the purchase), drink the last one, take notes and compare to the first two. If you are consistent in your flavor palette, you should be able to determine the changes that aging brings to an aged stout – and whether you like the changes or not. Repeat this with a few different stouts, and you will get the hang of it. However, it’s also important to understand that aging is an inexact science and won’t always give you the results you want. That’s usually OK, because in the end, it’s still a stout and drinking a good stout is always enjoyable.
Thanks to Matt Zajechowski and Digital Third Coast, there is now available a fantastic infographic that documents the ins and outs of cellaring in visual form. It’s an excellent primer for the cellaring rookie, and at the same time, a nice reminder for those vets who’ve been cellaring so long they think they invented it. I highly recommend giving it a read a couple of times to soak in all of it’s knowledge. Even if you did indeed invent cellaring, you will still pick up a few things you didn’t know.
The infographic was created as part of a marketing campaign for one of DTC’s suburban Chicago clients, Next Door Self Storage, who was seeking innovative and creative ways to sell Storage space. I think what Matt and Digital Third Coast put together was genius. Hmmmm… a small, dark, climate-controlled storage space – that sounds like a stout cellar to me. Matt took his love of craft beer and applied it in a novel way and now Next Door Self Storage is selling (and has sold) beer and wine cellar storage.
If your cellar requirements aren’t quite the size of a self-storage space, there are other options for you. I won’t repeat what’s in the infographic, but I will reinforce that temperature and darkness are the most important considerations. The easiest and cheapest is to rely on Mother Nature and use your basement/underground space to store your stout. No direct sunlight and cool temperatures make this a nice option.
Can’t rely on Mother Nature? My recommendation is that you look for a small, used refrigerator or wine cooler. I bought a used 35-bottle wine cooler with an adjustable temperature for $60 on Craigslist that works perfectly for me. I set the cooler to 55 degrees, removed the wine racks and put in two wooden shelves – the bottom holds 22oz. bombers, the middle shelf holds 12 oz. bottles, and the top shelf holds cans. My current inventory is well north of 50 vessels of stout in this custom-fit stout cellar. One note -one I learned the hard way: have an inventory notebook so you can record when your bottles are purchased and can also calculate their time in the cellar (aging). I didn’t do that initially and while it isn’t a show-stopper, I’ve had to estimate the aging on some of my older Stouts.
The art and science of aging and cellaring beer is yet another way to take your craft beer hobby to another level. Sure you can taste, sample, and review your Stouts when you buy them – and that works perfectly well for many. However, to a good number of Stout aficionados, aging their inventory is another way to manipulate flavors to reach even greater levels of complexity and taste. Don’t be afraid to give it a whirl; just go in with a clear understanding, preparation, and patience.