by Michael J. DeLuca
I’m moving to Michigan from Boston. Inside a car on a hot summer day for fourteen hours is about the worst place imaginable to store beer, and glass is dangerous to transport at the best of times, so in advance of the move, I’m giving a way a lot of homebrew. A lot: gallons and gallons of glorious mead, cider, cyser, barleywine, ale and stout. And for the most part, all this wonderful beer I had been hoping to drink in seasons to come is going to non-homebrewers. I worry: my beers are my babies. I want my friends to treat them right, both so they can get the best of their new collection and so if I ever come back to visit I can mooch a bottle or two. Hence this primer.
Read well, and reap the benefits.
Rule Number One:
Keep bottled homebrew in a cool, dry, dark place where conditions remain as consistent as possible.
Unlike storebought beer, homebrewed beer is unfiltered and contains no preservatives. This means a bottle of homebrew will always contain a certain amount of dormant but potentially active yeast, which could be reactivated at any time by agitation or by sudden change in temperature, with detrimental effects on flavor, clarity and mouthfeel. Another reason not to put homebrew through sudden changes in climate or physical stress is that the effects of gravity in pulling particulates (such as dead yeast, proteins, water mineral content and impurities) out of solution are a big part of the aging process. You want those particulates to remain at the bottom of the bottle, not be agitated back into solution. Exposing beer to light is also dangerous; light, particularly fluorescent light but sunlight as well, breaks down proteins, causing the beer to take on “skunky” flavors. Sunlight also carries the threat of heating the beer. This is why the best beer bottles are dark brown glass. The best place to store beer is in complete darkness; if you had the patience and a resilient lower back, you could happily bury your beer in a coffin in the backyard—as long as you dug down below the frost line. Moisture can also be a threat to beer: ideally, each bottle will be safely sealed and impervious, but there’s always the danger of an imperfect seal, or even a good seal weakening as rubber gaskets and cap linings deteriorate with age. If that happens, moisture can bring bacterial contamination. A flooded basement isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but ideally, over the long haul, a dry basement is much preferred.
Under ideal conditions and up to a certain length of time, any beer will benefit from aging. Ideal conditions are pretty much the same for every beer: It should be stored at or as close as possible to 60 degrees Farenheit or 15 Celsius, “cellar temperature”, in darkness, in a spot safe from vibration or accidental bumping. The darkest, deepest, coolest corner of a dry, deep basement works best. Failing that, a refrigerator is a fine place to store beer if you have room—even though fridge temperature is usually closer to 40 degrees F, it’s climate controlled and it’s dark—unless you go leaving the door hanging open like you were raised in a barn.
Ideal Aging Time
I label all my homebrew with the style of beer and the bottling date. While all beer gets better with age, the window during which it has aged enough to be delicious, but not so much as to have begun to deteriorate changes with the style of the beer. As a rule of thumb, the darker the color and higher the alcohol content, the longer the beer will improve with age. Cider is one notable exception to this. Further breakdown by style is as follows. I’m keeping my estimates conservative; go right ahead and experiment, but don’t be surprised if you get the occasional less than satisfying result. Particularly with the weird beers.
- Lagers and Light Ales, 4-5% alcohol: 1 – 6 months
- Amber Ales, 5-6% alcohol: 1 – 8 months.
- Porters and Stouts, 5-7% alcohol: 1 – 16 months
- Imperial Stouts, 9-12% alcohol: 2 – 36 months
- Barleywines, 10-16% alcohol: 6 – 48 months
- Ciders, 5-7% alcohol: 6 – 18 months.
- Fortified Ciders, 7-9% alcohol: 9 – 24 months.
- Cysers (blend of mead and cider), 6-10% alcohol: 9 – 24 months.
- Meads, 9-16% alcohol: 18 – 60 months.
- Fruit Wines, 9-14% alcohol: 18 – 60 months.
Some special cases (IE, crazy experimental beers that don’t fit any above category):
- Wormwood Chamomile Ancient Ale, 9% alcohol: 6 – 36 months.
- Spruce Beer, 7-8% alcohol: 24 – 48 months.
- Sage and Rosemary Black Beer, 6-7% alcohol: 2 – 18 months.
- Fruit Wines, 9-14% alcohol: 12 – 60 months.
When in Doubt, Wait
To sum up: look through what you’ve got, get a sense of the styles and bottling dates. Then put the beer in your basement, shut the door and go away for six months. Better yet, go away until I come to visit. But if you can’t stand to wait that long (and I can’t blame you), refer to the list above and see what’s in it’s prime. Pick something out, bring it upstairs and put it in the fridge for an hour, a day, a week. Then taste it.
And don’t forget to share.
If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry, and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck.