Over the last few years I’ve been hearing about how “over the hill” certain beers are. For this exercise I want to focus on two beers I had the pleasure of drinking over the weekend, Abyss ’06 and Firestone Walker 10. “Old cardboard” and “harsh booze” are absolutely not what I and quite a few others experienced with FW 10 this weekend at a massive tasting. On the contrary, it was fantastic. The oxidation present was nowhere near overpowering and had more of a sherry quality than cardboard. Abyss ’06, which some have reported as “falling off a cliff” was my second favorite vintage of the vertical, only behind ’08.
We then got into the discussion of certain people seemingly always having great bottles of decently old beer. The more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to those people that say “I’ve never had a problem keeping my cellar at 70 degrees”. I think the descriptions in some of the reviews of these particular beers are the kind of problems that would be presumed of a cellar kept above optimal temperature. This begs the question, is bottle variation really to blame? Or is your 70 degree cellar causing a perceived bottle variation? These two beers are only the most recent examples but I’ve encountered the same thing in the past with other beers that were supposedly over the hill(Bourbon County ’07, anyone?).
Both of these are two different topics and both are discussed a lot in the community. I don’t spend all day commenting on beer posts anymore so I have a lot more time to read and take in new information. Also, while in Europe, I saw a LOT of cellars and massive beer collections and tasted very old beer stored in different ways. I am NOT an expert but, among friends, I have an opinion on this.
With the rise in popularity of beer, cellaring is a growing route for beer lovers for a few different reasons. The first is that there is so much great beer, they buy more than they can drink and then are forced to prioritize by what beer “falls off” the soonest. This is why I cellar. I don’t really intend to try a beer with age but it just happens and I’ve yet to have a beer that I considered not drinkable simply because of its age. It’s usually other factors.
The oldest beer I had was a Gueuze from 1993. This was actually stored in a real cellar since purchase and arrived in a very dirty state from years of just sitting on a shelf. The first argument of what a real cellar is has validity but I believe you can convert a closet to a cellar as long as you follow the principles.
- Temperature Control
- Humidity Control
- Light Control
- Consistency in all three
A lot of what we know about cellaring comes from the wine world. The two liquids aren’t the same but there are basic properties. The liquid has things in it that change the taste with age. We then accelerate the aging if there is high heat, light or low / high humidity. So, for a graceful aging process where good things happen but not bad, you should put the liquid in a cellar. Cellars are usually damp, dark and stay a constant temp year-round. Most European homes have cellars and most home owners store wine in them. You buy a case of wine, grab one when you feel like it and, over time, the cellar grows and some wines can be passed down.
I don’t have a cellar but I recreated one.
- AC Unit that keeps a constant temp of 60 Degrees (55 in the winter)
- Humidifier that keeps at 70% humidity (no mold but my corks don’t dry out)
- Completely dark room with no windows and a single low watt light bulb
It’s not a real cellar but it serves the purpose. I call it my beer closet when guests are around. I still remain skeptical that I could keep a Gueuze for 15 years that was still drinkable in there but, for me, most of the beers I have are under 5 years old. I’m not worried about it. In truth, the people who obsess over their cellar (I was one at some point) are not realizing that they do trades for old beers a lot. Did the guy who bought it cellar it properly and, then traded it to a 2nd or 3rd person before it got to you, spending weeks of its life in shipping containers to the beer store and then being shipped around the US from trader to trader before it eventually goes to your cellar where you obsess over light and temp controls. Trust me, this beer has been through a lot so don’t stress about it.
I think a closet is not a cellar but, you can recreate cellar-like properties that enable the aging of beer up to a certain point. Just know, that AC unit you have could die while you’re away for a weekend and your beers are at 80 degrees and you will freak out. Mine did that once and the 50+ bottles I’ve opened since then have tasted great even the ones that arrived at my place with 7 years of age on them. Small variations of bottles you don’t plan on keeping for 20 years are going to be fine. Beer is very resilient.
My wine however has not done well with heat. Bottles in my “cellar” during that event were ruined. Just 10 or so $100+ bottles got skunked so that was disappointing but the beer was fine.
Taste variations due to cellar conditions. I agree this is a valid topic and one we shouldn’t worry about but simply keep in mind. The cellar that’s dark at 55 versus the semi-dark cellar at 70 with a beer that’s 6 years old will do things to the bottle. Variations in the three cellaring factors will contribute to a different flavor.
- Higher temperature accelerates aging (not always in a good way)
- Light “skunks” the beer
- Low humidity dries out corks allowing more oxidation to occur
- High humidity creates mold and can ruin labels
This is based on personal experience, not what guys on a web forum say. I’ve had the same beers bottled at the same time from 3 different cellars and tasted big differences. Not drinkable versus cardboard flavors but more of a “fresher” flavor as in more chocolate notes than the other or this one having a licorice taste. These variations are never changing the beer entirely but they do change how I’d review them. Also, bottle conditioned Lambic beers that are brought to a tasting are never as good as they are straight from someone’s cellar as the car ride generally stirs up all of the drags at the bottom of the bottle and contributes a very yeasty taste. I prefer old Lambics at someone’s house than at a tasting where people bring bottles by car.
So, conditions vary and this is why, when reviewing beers, I sometimes add notes to help readers out. Here are a few examples of things you can include if drinking an aged beer.
- Stored at 55 Degrees Constant Temp
- Acquired in a trade last year (bottle is ’05, traded for this in ’11. Stored in my cellar for 6 months)
- Humidity levels (although not important unless oxidation is really coming through)
- Light levels (important if you pick up skunky tastes)
- Bottled Date, Brewed Date, Acquisition Date are pretty important. Batch number as well as these have variations.
- Storage orientation (upright or sideways)
- Did you drink the drags or no?
I think these are fair things to briefly mention if you want to go through the extra typing effort.
You don’t have to add these things but you can. Then, if you get some interesting taste another reviewer doesn’t, they’ll see they were stored at 65 and you were stored at 50 or that someone had this before you and perhaps they never cared to keep the temp at an “accepted level”.
In closing, a closet can be cellar-like but it’s not a cellar. Beer variations start at the brewer and continue from distributor, store, 1st purchaser, shipped to you in a trade, stored in your closet and then finally opened. That’s a lot of stops for a beer and, more time = more variance. Don’t stress over it but try to keep data on all of your beers in an Excel file and include these in the reviews if you have time. Or don’t do any of this at all. Just a few things I’ve learned from experience that I thought worth sharing.
Thanks for reading.