Experts' best advice on how to protect your beer from flavor-sapping villains.
As America’s beer preferences have shifted—away from simple, aggressively filtered macro-lagers and toward more-nuanced craft and European brews—a lot of drinkers are wondering how to store their beer purchases.
Maybe you’re in love with some craft seasonal offerings, and you want to make sure you have a stash on hand during those long months when they’re not available. Or you might be interested in “cellaring” some of your beer—a process akin to aging fine wine in order to encourage flavor maturation and complexity. Even if you’re just looking to keep your case of PBR or Miller Lite fresher, longer, there are steps you can take to ensure your beer doesn’t skunk before you’ve had a chance to drink it.
Here, he and other experts explain how to protect your beer from these flavor-sapping villains. Whether you’re looking to age some hard-to-find Belgian ales or prolong the life of your Bud Light stockpile, these tips have you covered.
Let There Be Dark
Beer bottles are tinted for a reason; nothing will kill a beer faster than light exposure, says Erin Wallace, a self-described “beer maven” and owner of craft-focused Philadelphia taverns Old Eagle and Devil’s Den. While direct natural light—the kind streaming in from a window or skylight—is a sword through a beer’s heart, even indirect and artificial light can speed a beer’s spoilage. So the darker you can keep your beer-storage space, whether it’s a closet or a basement cellar, the better. Wallace also recommends storing beer in boxes to add an extra layer of light protection.
Stand ‘Em Up
A fine wine is always stored on its side to protect its bottle’s cork from drying out. Since most beers don’t have corks, laying them down isn’t necessary, Mack says. In fact, it’s a problem. Storing beer bottles on their sides can expose more of the beer to air in the bottle. It could also create a “yeast ring” on the bottom side of the bottle, and potentially cause the cap to rust. If your beer is corked, it needs to be on its side. Otherwise, always store beer standing up, Mack says.
For ‘Dead’ Beers, Colder Is Better
“Anything that is pasteurized is dead in the bottle,” says Michael Pasquarello, owner of Philly’s Kensington Quarters and Prohibition Taproom. By “dead,” he means free of active yeast or other ingredients that are likely to improve a beer’s flavor over time. Dead beers include all macrobrews, and many domestic craft offerings. The sooner you can drink these beers, the better. Pale ales too—because their hoppy bouquet and flavor only diminishes over time—are best enjoyed ASAP. To keep all these styles fresh, cold is your friend, and a basement beer fridge is your best option. You want to keep these beers in an environment south of 45 degrees, Pasquarello says. Close to (but not quite) freezing is ideal—around 34 to 36 degrees.
If You’re Aging Beer, Adjust Your Thermostat
While keeping beer fresh demands cold-but-not-freezing conditions, aging beer is a different story. Rather than arrest your beer’s maturation, you’re trying to gently encourage it. “A good rule is 45 to 55 degrees for aging,” Pasquarello says. “Any colder, and you are stunting [your beer’s] development.” Good candidates for this sort of aging are unpasteurized, high-alcohol (north of 8% ABV) brews like barley wines, imperial ales, and Belgian strong ales, says Matt Simpson, an Atlanta-based certified beer judge and owner of The Beer Sommelier craft-brewing consultancy. You could also age some lower-ABV unpasteurized beers—such as farmhouse ales or saisons—but you’d want to turn the thermostat down closer to 40 degrees. These styles don’t have enough alcohol to withstand higher temps.
Slow and Steady
Temperature consistency is another important factor in proper beer storage. Big temperatures swings—say, an unfinished basement that seesaws from 50 degrees in winter and 85 in summer—aren’t great for your beer, Wallace says. Again, a dedicated refrigerator is ideal for cold storage. Or, if you’re trying to age your beer, a wine fridge may be your best bet. Designed to keep its contents somewhere in the range of 45 to 55 degrees, a wine cooler usually has removable shelves, and so is easy to convert for upright beer-bottle storage, Mack adds.
Don’t Store Beer Too Long
The higher a beer’s alcohol content, the longer it can continue to develop during aging. But even high-ABV beers tend to top out around 10 or 12 percent—or well below the alcohol content of long-aging wines. Simpson says most beers will develop the depth and complexity you’re looking for within three to six years. In most cases, you wouldn’t want to cellar a beer for a decade or longer like you would a fine Bordeaux or Brunello.
Keep Records—And Keep Tasting
Cellaring beer is an experiment, not a formula. In order to understand how your beer is changing over time, you need to keep records—and establish a baseline flavor profile. “The first thing I do before I put a new beer into my cellar is open one,” says Terence Lewis, beverage director of Lolita, Barbuzzo, and a handful of other Philly bars. “I take notes on the structure, intensity, mouthfeel, hopping, spice, and richness of the beer—and, most importantly, the date I bought it.” (Remember, beers don’t include vintage dates like wines. So if you’re not labeling your cellared brews, it can be easy to lose track of what’s what.) Cellaring beer will usually involve buying at least a half-dozen bottles and revisiting them on an annual basis. You do this to note how the beer is changing—and to assess whether it has peaked and needs to be consumed. This tasting process is the fun and educational part of cellaring, and the best way to get a feel for how long a particular beer style or bottling will hold up.