Wine is not the only drink that can be aged for maturation. Many beers benefit from extended aging. We're not talking about your average beer with a mere shelf life of 3-6 months, tops -- before quality begins to degrade. We're talking about beers that beg for maturation and strict storage like vintage beers, barleywines, imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales, lambics, old ales and so on. Ideally, any type of beer that can be laid-down for a year or two, or even more, in order to build a slew of complexities and thus further its character in a positive way.
If you're interested in starting your own beer cellar it's actually pretty easy. First, you'll need to maintain enough patience and will-power to not drink them too early. This, beyond anything else, is the public enemy number one to your attempts. There's nothing worse than thinking about that special beer, just sitting there, as it whispers its sweet song to the pleasure portion of the brain, "Drink me".
Next, you'll need to buy at least two of each beer. One of the beers you'll want to drink immediately so you'll have a comparison in which to judge the aged one - taking some notes if you want. The other beer should be cellared for at least a year.
Now there's a lot of debate surrounding storing a beer upright vs. laying it down like a wine, specifically towards corked bottles. Some "experts" have faith in the old school wine way, that a corked beer should be kept on its side in order to keep the cork from drying out, while others believe that it doesn't really matter. In our opinion, ALL beer should be stored upright. Here's why we believe so, along with some other interesting facts about storage and cork:
Cork cells are impregnated with a waxy material, called suberin, that is almost impermeable to water or gases. Cork is also buoyant due to the presence of trapped air in the cavities of the waterproof dead cells. When cut these cells act as suction-cups and become adhesive, thus making them ideal bottle stoppers.
Natural cork is sometimes prone to drying out, however we've never had any problems -- even with beers aged 10+ years upright. Today's modern plastic/synthetic, screw cap, agglomerated, technical and capsulated corks are a lot less prone to shrinkage, to the point where it's not even worth worrying about. If a beer has been both corked and capped or corked then waxed, cork shrinkage is definitely not a major concern.
The inside of the bottle already contains its own humidity level, and as a result will not dry out the portion of the cork inside the bottle if stored properly. So the idea of laying a beer down to ensure that the liquid touches the cork to prevent drying is a moot point -- remember "almost impermeable to water", the cork is not going to act like a sponge. It's the cork exposed to the open air that should be of concern, however an ample amount of humidity is all that is required to stop any exposed cork from drying out during long-term storage.
Cork problems are usually a sign of a bad cork or a cork that has passed its lifespan, not necessarily a sign of poor storage. Agglomerated corks last for about 1-3 years before beginning to disintegrate. Plastic corks eventually lose their elasticity, too. We suggest contacting the brewery to find out what type of cork they used, and its expected lifespan.
Long storage of a beer on its side can create a yeast ring (or water-mark) inside the bottle, which will not settle. Storing a beer upright will ensure that the yeast compacts to the bottom of the bottle.
The upright storage method decreases the amount of exposed beer thus slowing oxidation of the beer.
Another real good reason for not storing a beer on its side is that long exposure to the cork (especially non-taint treated natural cork) can impart cork flavours within the beer. The alcohol in beer draws out that mouldy/musty character of the cork and in fact can taint the beer. In our opinion this doesn't add any wanted complexity to the beer. Natural cork can also harbour certain fungal bacterias which are believed to create an off-flavour compound called 2,4,6, Trichloroanisole or simply TCA, which renders its victim lifeless and dull to the taste.
Many vintage beers are kept on beer shelves for quite some time before being sold. Don't you think beer stores would shelve their corked beers like wine, if they were meant to be laid-down like wine?
We've spoken to dozens of brewers, who all recommend the upright method of beer storage. Even world-renowned brewers like Chimay and Riva suggest that you store all of their beers upright.
Just because a self-proclaimed "beer expert" recommends that beer be laid-down like wine, doesn't mean that they are 100% correct. There's more than one opinion in the world, and opinions change over time.
So now you have a better understanding on how to store a beer. Next, where to store? First, beer should never come into contact with heat or light. Both will wreak havoc on your delicate stash of brews, and we're sure everyone has heard of the term "skunky". This is often a sign of a "light struck" beer.
We recommend that you store your beer in a cool area, away from direct light, sources of heat and in a constant temperature environment. Speaking of which, temperature is very important, and a major factor in the storing and serving aspects of beer. It also can become a real balancing act. Beer benefits from cool constant temperatures; usually around 50-55 degrees F is ideal for most beers, and most beer collectors. Higher temperatures and you'll risk shortening the lifespan of your beer, lower and you'll induce chill haze (cloudy). For you beer geeks out there, we'll break it down a bit further ...
There are 3 storage temperatures used to lay beer down for maturation and/or storage. Not only will you want store your beers at these specific temperatures, but also you'll want to serve them at the same. Your strong beers (like barleywines, tripels, dark ales) will be their happiest at room temperature (55-60F), most of your standard ales (like bitters, IPAs, dobbelbocks, lambics, stouts, etc) will be at cellar temperature (50-55F) and your lighter beers (like lagers, pilsners, wheat beers, milds, etc) will be at a refrigerated temperature (45-50F). Usually the higher alcohol, the higher temperature and lower alcohol, the lower temperature ... you get the point.
Obviously it'll be near impossible to regulate some of the above temperatures, unless you have a second fridge for beer or a cool basement. A compromise is to at least store those beers that are ideal at slightly higher temperature in a closet, away from light and environmental changes, or stay within the 50-55F range. As you get into beer cellaring, you'll probably see many variations of these recommended temperatures, but ours are good averages to go by.
Note on refrigerators: Long-term use is not recommended. Refrigerators are designed to keep food dry, so dehydration of cork can become an issue (laid-down or upright). Corked beers that you wish to age long-term should be kept in a cellar, where moderate humidity levels might be more appropriate.
Cool. Now that you have an idea as to what to cellar and how, what can you expect a year or more down the road when you've patiently waiting to crack open your aging beers? The answer = who knows? There are way too many variables that come to play, on top of the variations within the different styles. Some beers age very well, others don't. Some beers need only a year, while others can age for 25+ years. And, many breweries have no idea what their beer will taste like years down the road, while others can make pretty damn good predictions. It's all part of the fun.
Some final advice: if you cellared your beer too cold, then serve it immediately you'll get less carbonation, less aroma and less flavour. You'll also risk numbing your palate. Use the store temp = serve temp rule and you'll be fine.