Buying Beer, Part 6: How to Set Up a Beer Cellar
The humble beer cabinet. It's not fancy, but at least the bottles are protected from light and extreme temperature changes.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Buying Beer: The Series So Far
Part 1: Beers For Everyday Drinking
Part 2: Readily-Available Beers That Can Be Aged
Part 3: Seasonal & Limited Beers
- Part 4: Beers Worth Standing In Line For
- Part 5: Breweries To Visit While Traveling
Here’s a dirty little secret: Many beer collectors, even beer professionals, end up settling for a cool, dark cabinet or even a box for their beer collection. (By the way, if you're aging beer, don't forget to label it with the date it should be consumed. Electronic label makers, such as the Brother P-Touch series, are perfect for this.)
However, there are better ways to store beer and once you’ve amassed a collection, it’s time to start considering how best to protect that investment.
Most of these considerations relate to bottled beer since even amber glass is somewhat light-transmissive. However, even aluminum cans should be protected, especially from heat. No one likes skunky beer.
Stand Up or Lay Down?
People who started out collecting wine automatically believe that bottled beer should be stored the same way: horizontally in a wine rack. That’s not necessarily the case.
Beer sealed with caps should never be stored horizontally. Joey Williams, beer manager of Spec’s, pointed out that there’s no concern of keeping a cork hydrated in this case. Laying the beer down means the air pocket will run lengthwise and oxidize a greater surface area of the beer.
As for beer with corks, there’s a bit of dissension on how to store those. Williams said that, in Belgium, many lambic producers and farmhouse breweries rest the beer on its side like wine. Many experts, though, disagree with this method.
The Craft Beer Academy website has a storage guide and says that the humidity in the bottle should be sufficient for cork hydration. Furthermore, the site asserts that if the beer comes in contact for extended periods with corks — which are often coated to better seal the bottle — off flavors may develop.
A member of the Houston Let's Talk Craft Beer group shared a photo of his own setup that mixes cabinets and small refrigerators. Note that all of the bottles are upright.
Photo by "Sam Whiskey"
Kevin Floyd of The Hay Merchant said, “People think that because you store wine on its side that beer should also be stored on its side. Beer is not wine. There are a lot of reasons to store wine on its side, but beer doesn't share those reasons. Cork is porous, beer is under pressure and beer touching the cork can, over time, seep out through the cork”
A final problem with laying beer down is sediment. Floyd explained this issue: “Many beers that age well are bottle-conditioned, which means there is live yeast in the bottle. As the beer ages, the yeast will drop [which is a nice way to say “die”]. If the bottle is on its side, the yeast collects along the length of the bottle, making it harder to pour clean beer and increas[ing] the risk of off flavors from excessive contact with the yeast cake. Also, bottle-conditioned beer with wild yeast could begin to break the cork down if given enough time.”
When it’s time to serve, the yeast cake will get stirred up and add undesirable texture, appearance and flavor. It’s better to let this stuff settle on the bottom of the bottle and be careful not to pour it into the glass when serving.
There are good, better and best ways to store beer. The goals are to protect it from its enemies: heat, light and oxygen. Storing it upright as noted above helps with the oxygen issues. Let’s consider how best to protect it from heat and light.
Good: A Dark Area in an Air-Conditioned Room
Most of my own collection is simply stored in a bottom cabinet in my kitchen. (Okay, fine, it’s two cabinets. You got me.) Anyway, while it’s not a sexy solution, it does at least protect the beer from big temperature jumps and light.
A wine refrigerator would seem like a good option for beer storage thanks to the built-in temperature control capabilities. Unfortunately, beer bottles need to stand upright, so none of the top space can be used for anything but wine. (Note all of the extra shelving stacked to the side.)
Photo by Phaedra Cook
Better: Wine Refrigerators With Built-In Temperature Control
This seems like the easy option for temperature control if you can afford to throw a few hundred bucks at a wine fridge or two. The more precious bottles of our collection — or the ones we’re actually anticipating drinking soon — go into the bottom of the wine fridge. (Okay, there are two wine fridges. Busted again.)
The biggest problem we’ve encountered is that we have wine, too, and those bottles take up the top racks. The more significant issue is that wine racks aren’t made for the wide variety in beer bottle shapes. Beer bottles are kind of like people shapes. Some bottles are wide and chunky. Others are small and narrow. Wine racks are made for wine bottles, which are fairly uniform.
Another issue takes us back to where we started. If beer bottles should be stored upright, then we can’t use the wine racks regardless. That means for people who only collect beer and not wine, the upper area of a wine fridge is utterly useless.
Best: A Refrigerator or Freezer With an External Temperature Control
Hardcore beer collectors go the extra mile and buy a dedicated refrigerator or wide freezer for their beer collection. Of course, these appliances don't necessarily stay at the desired temperature for beer. So, to surmount that issue, an external digital thermostat can be purchased to better control the temperature. The fridge/freezer gets plugged into the thermostat and then into the wall outlet. An external probe hangs inside the cooling unit to monitor conditions.
Want to go to the next level? Floyd says, "If you really want to be a badass, buy a freezer and pay to have the thermostat changed so you don't have the extra cords and wires."
Storage and Serving Temperatures For Beer
The Craft Beer Restaurant website recommends different serving temperatures for beer depending on the style as follows:
- Malty, rich, high-alcohol: 50 to 55 degrees
- Ales, lager, cider: 46 degrees
- Pale lagers, lambics, Kölsch, Berliner Weisse: 41 degrees
The site also points out that if beer is poured into a room-temperature glass, the temperature will rise by about two degrees. That’s why better craft beer bars use a star sink — an in-counter sprayer that, when a glass is pressed upside down on it, sprays water into it. Besides removing any dishwasher detergent residue, it also cools the glass.
The past few weeks, we’ve covered highly desirable, collectible beers, like barrel-aged stouts and seasonal beers, and today was about how to store them. Next week, we’re heading in the opposite direction. Have you ever seen a chef or the kitchen crew call for a stout while they’re working? No. The last thing a hot and sweaty person wants is a thick, intense brew.
Next week, we’ll find out what the chefs drink — incidentally, the same beers that are just right for fun in the sun or just mowing the lawn.
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