How long does a beer stay “good”? There is no one simple answer.
As the process of cellaring packaged beers grows more popular, so do theories on how to store them properly.
Some people simply shove packaged beer in the back of a dark closet, while others build climate-controlled rooms in their basements.
Richard Dube, brewmaster at Braxton Brewing, has more than 34 years of experience in the beer industry. He called cellaring “a fun game” but warned that you can never be sure what you will get.
“For a brewery to, say, sit on it four or five months, unless you have the data, nobody should be able to say it’s perfect,” he said. “There are too many variables. An honest and true response is it will continue to evolve, and you might like it better or not.”
One of the variables with packaged beer is how it is treated once it leaves the brewery.
“When beer leaves the premises, you don’t know what happens to it,” Dube said. “A product in a bottle or can has its maximum shelf life stamped on it, and that’s if you did everything right. Everything starts with the package operation itself. It’s true for cans, bottles, kegs, whatever – it’s about how good you are at filling it.”
Filling is a key part of the equation but it's hardly the only factor. During the packaging process, leaving too much room in a can, bottle or keg traps oxygen in the container. That means a beer will continue to oxidize, which will change its flavors.
For some beers, like those made with the yeast brettanomyces, oxidization in the package is counted on, although a specific result cannot be. “Brett” beers, as they are called, have grown popular over the years, although in beers for which it is not intended, brettanomyces leads to off flavors. Local beers like Fifty West's Brett is My CoPilot are sold with this in mind.
“This beer will taste different in six months or a year,” said Blake Horsburgh, Fifty West brewmaster, at the Brett is My CoPilot release this year. “It might be better, it might be worse, but it will be different.”
MadTree Brewing dedicated a Tumblr post to this matter earlier this year. MadTree goes by the 3-30-300 Rule, referring to how quickly a beer will degrade at certain temperatures: In three days at roughly 90 degrees, 30 days at room temperature and 300 days refrigerated, you can expect a beer to start to lose its original flavors.
According to the post, MadTree packages its beers at 35 degrees to help keep carbonation from escaping and keep the beer "brewery fresh" longer.
"Nearly all beers are brewed to be drunk immediately," said Mike Stuart, MadTree's director of people and social strategy. "Cellaring a beer will result in the flavor profile changing over time, which may not follow the original intent of the brewer.
"It is usually best to drink one beer fresh (and take notes of the flavor profile) and then cellar a second or third to see how it changes over time," Stuart said.
If you choose to cellar beer, Stuart said the general rule of thumb is to keep it cool and dark.
"You want to keep light out to avoid skunking the beer and you want a cool temperature to make the transformation slow and steady," he said. "You can just throw them in a box in a temperature-stable area of your basement, or some folks will set up refrigerators with temperature controllers for more precise regulation."
Dube said he stores both beer and wine in hexagonal clay drainage tiles, which can be stacked in cabinets.
“I have a beautiful cabinet with the tiles; they are about 18 inches. The easiest and safest way is to just stack them,” he said. “You insert the bottle in the tile so it is protected from light, and if the temperature is stable, that’s good. The clay changes very, very slowly. It’s a bad co-efficient of thermal exchange.”
He agreed with Stuart about temperature being key.
“The garage is the worst place you can put beer,” he said. “The main thing is stability – it doesn’t matter if it’s 40 degrees or 78 degrees, although at 78 degrees it’s going to age faster, obviously.”
Dube, who worked for Labatt Brewing/Budweiser, Sam Adams and Christian Moerlein prior to Braxton, said he doesn’t cellar too many beers – he actually has more wine stored – but he does have a few that he’s waiting for the right time to open.
“I have a Sam Adams Triple Bock from 1994,” he said. “That beer was before its time. I’d certainly like to share it with some people, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to be good.”