Be it a 1,000-bottle temperature-controlled commercial cellar, the crisper drawer of a refrigerator, or a hole in someone’s backyard, just about everyone has a beer cellar nowadays. However, it’s been only a few short years since the average craft-beer drinker has even been aware of the concept of aging beer or the notion that sitting on particular styles will let harsh aspects mellow while vintage complexities develop. Yet, as the craft-beer movement skyrockets, so has its disciples’ eagerness to explore its ever-expanding boundaries.
The problem is, if you look into the makeup of the average beer cellar, you’ll see that many have fallen prey to the classic trap: they are made up mostly of pricey, rare beers selected more for their “whale” status than for their cellar-worthiness. You should choose a beer for cellaring because of its potential to develop into something great, not because you’re waiting for a special occasion to open it. Luckily, there are plenty of easy-to-find, time-tested options that won’t break the bank the way that a whale can.
So rather than creating a cellar solely for displaying the family jewels, create a cellar of bottles that you won’t need an excuse to open—or a loan to replace. Here are some excellent options, both in quality and price, around which to build your cellar.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (Chico, California)
Style: American Barleywine
Price: $10, 4-pack
Cellar Potential: One of the best-known rules in aging beer is that hoppiness fades over time. Then why age this hoppy powerhouse of a barleywine? Sierra Nevada is obsessive about minimizing oxygen exposure in their beers, and it’s oxidation that causes hops presence to slowly dwindle. So, even after five years of aging, Bigfoot retains an impressive hop presence, but also has cellar-derived complexities such as sherry, raisins, and vanilla to create a delectable, yet hoppy, sipper.
Founders Old Curmudgeon Ale (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Style: Old Ale
Price: $12, 4-pack
Cellar Potential: Old ales, by nature, are designed to be cellared. Because old ales pack an alcoholic punch and lack almost any hops aroma or flavor, time will slowly meld the initially boozy presence and malt melanoidins into a dessert-in-a-glass with notes of caramel, molasses, figs, and port. Founders’ Old Curmudgeon is one of the few available for purchase in the United States, and with a sticky amount of residual sugar, it has the legs to go the distance.
Unibroue Trois Pistoles (Chambly, Quebec)
Style: Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Price: $13, 4-pack
Cellar Potential: Trois Pistoles is one of the few Belgian strong dark ales that come in a four-pack and at a price that won’t break the bank. Young bottles display sweet notes of pepper, clove, dark brown sugar, and a strong black rum-like presence. Given just a year or two of cellaring though, it mellows to show off flavors of figs, vanilla, and a much more refined alcohol profile.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (Brooklyn, New York)
Style: Imperial Stout
Price: $11, 4-pack
Cellar Potential: According to the brewery’s website, their Black Chocolate Stout “is delicious when newly bottled, but also ages beautifully for years.” The strong roasted character in fresh imperial stouts will slowly transform from acrid, espresso-like to a mellowed dark chocolate wave of Dutch cocoa and stone fruits, and this beer is the perfect example. Give it two to three years to fully live up to its name, but be sure to try a few along the way to discover your sweet spot.
Bell’s Expedition Stout (Kalamazoo, Michigan)
Style: Imperial Stout
Price: $15, 6-pack
Cellar Potential: Expedition Stout is one of the first imperial stouts to be brewed in the United States and is widely considered to be one of the best. Bell’s dedication to malt-bill perfection is what helps this beer age gracefully for a decade or more. Look for rich notes of dates, prunes, and amaretto to develop, making this beer drink more like a late vintage port than an ale.
Schneider Aventinus (Kelheim, Germany)
Price: $4, 16.9-ounce bottle
Cellaring Potential: Deciding to age a weizenbock can be a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, the high ABV, stone-fruit esters, and clove phenols beg for a stint in the cellar, but the chewy mouthfeel and banana-like esters are well known to be fleeting. Luckily, the low price point of the world’s best weizenbock has encouraged veteran cellarers to experiment, and the results have been renowned. Look for aged bottles to take on vanilla, grape, and sherry flavors over time, completely changing the profile of this classic brew.
Alaskan Brewing Smoked Porter (Juneau, Alaska)
Style: American Rauchbier
Price: $7, 22-ounce bottle
Cellaring Potential: At 6.5 percent ABV, this American-brewed rauchbier would be dismissed by many, but what they don’t know is that smoke phenols can act just as well as alcohol to slow the aging process to allow graceful maturation. When fresh, this beer comes across overwhelmingly smoky, but time mellows the smoke to a complementary aspect of the emerging sherry and dried fruit flavors. With a few years of age, this becomes one of the best food-pairing beers of all time.
Boon Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait (Lembeek, Belgium)
Style: Oude Geuze
Price: $8, 375-mL bottle
Cellar Potential: While Mariage Parfait is not exactly cheap, no cellar is complete without a quality oude geuze, and Frank Boon’s top-tier offering is by far the best bang for your buck. In addition, unlike Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon, it is still relatively easy to find. It’s a very balanced oude gueuze that benefits from a fruity alcohol kick. Look for the acidity to slowly soften over the years and for subtle rhubarb, pineapple, and cellar-must nuances to surface.
PHOTO: MATT GRAVES