When it comes to starting a beer cellar, many collectors find that it begins not as a conscious decision, but rather as the slow, and perhaps seemingly random, accumulation of ragtag beers. A couple of bottles too “special” to open right then, leftovers from a six-pack that someone mentioned cellar well, a unique find at an out-of-the-way liquor store. And then one day, you suddenly find yourself with a cobbled-together beer collection.
Yet, because the collecting was fairly unintentional, chances are the beers aren’t being stored in the ideal cellaring conditions and instead end up being squirreled away somewhere based more on convenience: a cupboard, your kitchen counter, crisper drawer of your fridge—all far from ideal (as we’ll discuss). Beer needs all the help it can get if it’s going to win the battle against Father Time.
It first takes an exceptional beer to be able to develop and mature positively much past a year. But even when you make vintage-worthy selections, the next key to successful cellaring is the conditions in which the beers are stored. The cornerstones of an ideal cellar are lack of light, a cool and steady temperature, relatively high humidity, and (in)convenience.
Keeping beer in the dark is important because it prevents skunking of the hops compounds (the isomerized alpha acids that produce hops bitterness in beer are degraded when exposed to light in the blue or ultraviolet spectrum and as a result produce the compound perceived as skunky or lightstruck). Green glass is infamous for skunking as it blocks less of the light in that blue spectrum, but it will occur even in brown glass under artificial light—given enough time.
When it comes to the appropriate temperature, it’s all about balance. Too hot, and your beer will age rapidly and take on stale flavors; too cold (à la a refrigerator crisper drawer, typically in the mid-30s), and it will develop at a crawl. Hence, a cellar temperature of around 55°F (13°C) is the sweet spot.
Stability within that temperature range is also critically important to ensure that the various conditioning and maturation processes complete. These chemical processes stall if the temperature swings in and out of their activation range. If you store your beer in a location that experiences daily fluctuations, you can protect the beer if you keep the bottles in coolers or Styrofoam wine shippers, which help to insulate them.
The humidity is really only an issue when it comes to corked beers. Over time, traditional corks can dry out, allowing the carbon dioxide to escape, which is a negative for obvious reasons. But this drying also allows oxygen to seep in, which can cause the beer to adopt stale flavors. While some evidence suggests that corks can maintain sufficient moisture at relative humidity levels as low as 35 percent, most experts advocate maintaining 55–75 percent relative humidity. If your cellar is outside of this range, you should minimize the number of corked beers or not age them for long periods of time. Wax-sealed corks can help minimize the drying effect as the wax fills gaps (which worsen when the cork dries) between the cork and the glass.
To test the conditions of any space where you plan to store beer, combination thermometer/hygrometer units are an inexpensive way to measure both temperature and relative humidity.
The final cellar condition to consider is that of convenience (or lack thereof). While convenience is usually a positive when it comes to most things in life, some cellarers find that it’s not a bad thing if their beer is difficult to access. Certain beers require years to reach their peak and an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” setup aids cellarers in their resolve to let the beer reach the finish line.
With all of this in mind, let’s evaluate some of the more popular options for a beer cellar. While all are viable, some definitely have an edge over the others.
The interior closet is everyman’s cellar. It is especially popular because just about everybody has a closet where they can manage to cram a box of beer. The advantage here is the lack of light and the relatively stable temperature because the closet isn’t on an exterior wall. However, the rather large disadvantage is the temperature at which we generally keep our homes (about 70°F/21°C), which leads to stale flavors. And unless you live in Florida, humidity will be a concern, too. If you must use this option, look to age very sturdy (12%+ ABV or highly acidic) non-corked beers.
In reality, the occupied basement is just a very large, glorified interior closet. While the basement is below grade, and therefore able to enjoy temperature stability, the temperature will still likely be too high for optimal beer storage because it is a living space. As with the interior closet, look to age sturdy non-corked beers in the basement. Also, to prevent your beers from becoming light-skunked, be sure to eschew storing beers on display shelves like a trophy collection. Choose boxes instead.
The small refrigerators designed to cool wine can maintain the perfect steady temperature for aging beers (55°F/13°C). In addition, the glass blocks UV rays so there are no worries about skunking (if you own a wine fridge with an interior light, consider disabling it). Where this option fails is when it comes to humidity. The same compressor that cools the fridge also strips out the air’s moisture, bringing the humidity much too low to store corked beers for long periods of time. After all, these devices were designed to cool wine to serving temperature, not to age bottles. So, as long as you forgo aging cork-sealed beers (and don’t mind the associated energy cost), this is a stellar option.
Offsite storage has long been popular with wine collectors in metropolitan areas where space is at a premium. Now, beer cellarers are discovering these businesses that rent out temperature-controlled storage. Not only are they typically kept dark and at a steady 55°F (13°C), but also any operation worth its salt offers humidity control. While the obvious drawback to using one of these businesses is that you have to pay for your beer cellar, the inconvenience factor (most offer 24-hour keypad access, but still…) can be a boon to vintage-beer lovers with low willpower.
Be it an actual root cellar or a just an insulated crawl space, these below-grade food bunkers were designed to maximize the longevity of perishable items, which happen to share the same requirements as vintage-worthy beer. No light, a low and steady temperature, and a typically higher-than-ambient humidity level spell cellar success. Plus, by their nature root cellars and crawl spaces are usually kind of difficult to access. And the best part is that one doesn’t cost you a dime to operate (except, of course, for the thousands of dollars’ worth of beer).
Which cellar option is best for you really comes down to what you have at your disposal. While everybody would love a root cellar in which to age beer, we aren’t all so lucky. However, with options such as wine refrigerators and offsite storage, near-ideal cellar conditions can be had, albeit at an operating cost. And for those limited to basement or closet storage, the key is choosing beers that can shrug off any less-than-ideal conditions they might encounter. Figure out the best option at your disposal and go for it! Your beer deserves it!