At some point, without probably even realizing it, you began your beer cellar. It usually starts innocently enough—stashing away an extra bottle from a four pack of barleywine, splurging on a second bottle of gueuze to let it mellow—and all of a sudden, you’ve got crates upon crates of happily maturing beer tucked away in your basement or closet.
This is a great thing. Not only is it a sign of your beer prowess, but it shows that you get that some beer just needs a quiet rest to really hit its stride. The overpowering booziness of that barleywine melts away leaving behind raisins and caramel, and the gueuze’s bracing acidity slowly softens and integrates, letting subtle nuances, such as rhubarb and cellar must, shine.
But, while the beer itself is, of course, an integral part of a beer cellar, it’s important to remember that more than just the bottles are required. You’ll find that there are a host of items that can lend a helping hand to cellarers. Whether it’s to aid the aging process, shed light on a bottle’s readiness, or elevate the drinking experience, be sure to consider the following items to bring your beer cellar to its utmost potential.
Styrofoam Wine Shippers
Maturing beer likes a steady temperature for the temperature-dependent aging processes to enjoy a nice, easy ride. So unless you’re able to cellar your beer in temperature-controlled storage, beer-cellar locales such as closets, basements, root cellars, and crawlspaces, will most likely experience daily temperature swings. By storing your beer in Styrofoam wine shippers, you will insulate your beer from these fluctuations. You can find them at U-Haul stores, but also check your local wine-storage facilities for extra shippers that they might be looking to purge.
Really, really old beers (fifty-plus years old) are usually cork-sealed, and that amount of time often means the cork is more likely to crumble inside the bottle than to pull out cleanly. While this is a newer problem to the beer world, vintage port drinkers long ago came up with a clever solution—port tongs.
The tip of the port tongs is heated in a bed of coals, then clamped around the neck of the bottle, just below the cork. After a few seconds, the tongs are removed, and a wet towel is immediately wrapped around the neck. The rapid temperature change cleanly fractures the neck, eliminating any need to pull out the cork. And it’s the most badass way to open a bottle.
While some breweries are considerate enough to label the vintage on their cellar-worthy beers, many still do not. Keeping a silver or gold Sharpie on hand gives you a quick and easy-to-read method of marking the year on vintage-less bottles. The Sharpie can also be used to mark fill levels.
Remote Temperature Sensor
A cool cellar temperature is key to successful beer aging, and a remote temperature sensor to monitor cellar conditions is an incredibly convenient way to do so. (Cellarers are often surprised to find that their space isn’t always as cold as they think.) Gadget geeks should check out the La Crosse line of temperature sensors, which log temperature data and broadcast it over Wi-Fi, where it can easily be checked via phone or really anywhere with an Internet connection. It can even send you email alerts if the temperature becomes too high or low, preventing a costly cellar disaster.
Just like a fine wine, many aged beers can benefit from a short rest in a decanter to blow off some of the volatile musty aromas that can emerge over time. Don’t underestimate this item.
As a beer ages, malt proteins fall out of suspension and collect at the bottom of a bottle. These chunky coagulates won’t hurt you, but they are often bitter and visually detract from the overall experience. Keep cheesecloth or some sort of fine filter to pour old beers through when decanting. It also helps catch potential crumbled cork bits or glass shards from overzealous use of port tongs.
Over time, a beer cellar typically grows to such a size that you can no longer keep a mental inventory of your beers (Congratulations!). By using a log—be it a spreadsheet, a website such as cellarHQ.com, or even simply a notepad—cellarers can avoid the over-the-hill pitfall of forgetting about a precious beer.
Ideally, a cork needs about 50–70 percent relative humidity to prevent the sort of drying and subsequent shrinkage that allows carbonation to escape, letting damaging oxygen in. Unfortunately, most cellars don’t enjoy this level of moisture, so corked beers aged longer than a year or two should be waxed. This will help fill any small gaps between the cork and glass, which would worsen over time. You can pick up waxing supplies at your local homebrew store.
You might say “duh” to this one, but the seemingly most basic items are overlooked the most. Keep a flashlight handy in the cellar to check fluid levels, which can indicate evaporation through drying corks, and pellicle formation, a white film that’s evidence of wild yeast infection—a bad sign for your non-sour beers.
Wine Vacuum Pump
High ABV, bomber-sized beers will typically make up a large percentage of any beer cellar. And while these often age well, they can be a challenge for some to finish in a single sitting. Rather than pour out the leftover (or pound it and suffer the hangover), use a wine vacuum pump to pull out the damaging oxygen and finish it in the next day or two. The remaining beer will often have lost some carbonation, but is otherwise reasonably unchanged.
If you’re not using port tongs to open those cork-sealed beers, make sure to use a lever-style corkscrew (e.g., The Rabbit) when removing the cork. Their smooth, slow motion does a superior job of removing fragile corks when compared to the inevitable jerking and bending of the classic wine key. And they look way cooler than those jumping-jack models.
Lambic Basket or Wine Cradle
Used by lambic producers in the Senne Valley, lambic baskets solve the problem of stirred-up sediment that’s inevitable when pouring multiple times from the same bottle. By keeping the bottle at an angle, pouring now only takes a tilt of the wrist, and sediment is collected harmlessly in the corner of the bottle. Plus, you’ll look supercool.
For those who prefer a more contemporary solution, a wine cradle does quite nicely.
Podcast Episode 21: New Belgium's Wood Cellar Director & Blender Lauren Limbach
Jamie is joined by American sour beer pioneer Lauren Limbach of New Belgium Brewing, and they talk about the evolution of New Belgium’s sour beer program, from the earliest days two decades ago to the advances in analytics and technical process today.