The best beer I’ve ever tasted was the first – and only – vintage edition of Firestone-Walker’s Abacus, an American Barleywine. The beer, of course, due to a cease and desist order from a winemaker, changed its name after that first edition to Sucaba and has appeared as such each iteration since the beer’s arrival in 2011. I had it in 2016.
The beer was sweet and subdued, rich and full-bodied, with a smoothness to belie the 13% alcohol by volume, almost like a port wine. It’s safe to say that by any objective metric, this beer was well-crafted and measurably “good.” It hit all the benchmarks for flavors and mouthfeel and finish and all the other standards by which we judge a beer.
Just drinking the beer was an experience, but I believe there was something greater at play.
The beer was shared by three friends who hadn’t been in the same room for a few years; We were celebrating a significant professional milestone; We were celebrating an upcoming birth; We were on a back porch in San Diego, looking over the hills to the ocean, and the sun was shining; Spirits were, as they should have been, high. In other words, beer was just part of the equation.
The experience of the Abacus is perhaps the most compelling argument for cellaring beer. Beer is meant to be shared and enjoyed with friends or family in important or celebratory moments.
A properly-cellared beer can be the centerpiece of a memorable experience. A great beer is, among other things, a talking point, a social lubricant, and a communal. Beer is accessible in ways that a drink like wine or Scotch is not. While many beers have complexities and nuance, they don’t hold the lofty, sophisticated stigma some other beverages do.
But it’s not just the beer that makes the experience great: The people, the location, and the memories of those moments help make a beer great in both the present and in retrospect. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe it’s both.
Different moods, foods, or time of year have an impact on what type of beer I want to drink.”
Having a cellar full of beer can be construed as yet another example of a craft beer lover self-indulgently naval-gazing, but I don’t think there are collectors of anything – stamps, sports paraphernalia, art – that don’t deserve their moment to share their collections with like-minded people their collections. You know, sharing via drinking.
There are also experimental reasons for cellaring a beer that have nothing to do with the enjoyment with friends or the hash-tagged oversharing on social media: Beer is a living organism. It changes. The evolution of a beer is a journey. That Firestone-Walker was very different than it was when bottled five years earlier.
Tim Adams of Oxbow Brewing Company in Portland, Maine believes in cellaring many styles of beers like imperial stouts and barleywines, but in particular farmhouse/Belgian styles of beer because of their living components.
“We produce a very complex beer called Bobasa, which is a blend of 24- and 12-month-aged smoked Biere de Garde combined with a fresh portion of the same base beer. The combination of the smoked malt, the low ph of this sour beer, and the living culture of wild yeast and microorganism that are present create an environment that is ideal for aging potential.
“As a drinker, I find that through proper aging I can take the same beer and experience it differently based on the length of time it has sat in my cellar,” said Adams. “Different moods, foods or time of year have an impact on what type of beer I want to drink.”
The intense flavors begin to soften, making a drink that was once too boozy or too heavily focused on one ingredient a richer, more complete beverage.”
In other styles, like big barleywines or stouts, cellaring can help take the edge off beers that are too imbalanced or too boozy.
“Sometimes [cellaring] can calm alcohol presence, balance out bitterness and hop character, and mellow oxidation,” said Brad Clark of Jackie O’s in Athens, Ohio.
Even casual drinkers possess palates that can discern distinct differences over time. A barrel-aged beer may taste like a distillery when fresh, but the flavors will blend together with time ...
(This is where I should warn readers that if a barrel-aged beer tastes like a distillery, it might not be that good of a beer. The barrel should be an accent, not the flavor.)
... A high alcohol beer evolves over time. Think of it like a chili. After a day or so, the flavors begin to meld together and make a better product. It’s a fuller experience, unlike the previous day, where the mixture was unbalanced: too spicy or too thin. Beer does the same thing just over a longer period of time. The intense flavors begin to soften, making a drink that was once too boozy or too heavily focused on one ingredient a richer, more complete beverage.
And it makes the beer a better experience for some individual drinkers, or, “more palatable for said drinker’s taste,” said Clark.
Though his brewery doesn’t make many big, boozy beers, Adams agrees.
“Some imperial stouts, for example, can be a bit hot and boozy right out of the gate, but after some time to mature they mellow out and the heat dies down, making them more enjoyable to my palate,” he said.
However, it’s prudent to be cautious. Prepare, many times, to be disappointed. Cellaring is about taking a journey with a beer, not necessarily improving it.
In other words, aging a beer doesn’t make the beer a better one, just a different one (though you may like it better), and a good beer can turn into an old, stale or sour mess after too much time; Time in a basement is not some magical elixir that transforms a bad stout into a delicious stout either, so use your judgment when overspending on an aged bottle at a store or bar.
“I think the most important take away of the practice of aging beer is the experience of seeing what the beer has become over time,” said Clark. “How it has changed, for better or worse.”
The stipulation to all of this is that, when possible, buy two bottles of the beer. You can’t notice the changes in a one-year-old beer unless you know what it tastes like fresh.
“It is important to understand what the beer is when it is fresh and released,” said Clark. “This will be paramount in deciding whether or not to age a beer in a bottle or in a barrel.”
Consider also the fact that a good brewer likely wouldn’t have released the beer if it weren’t ready to drink. It’s always the drinker’s choice to age a beer. You won’t always like the result.
“I can't stress enough about how we age our beers be it in stainless or oak before we package and release them,” added Clark. “They are at the pinnacle of character production and ready!”
In the end, though, cellaring is about the experience of the beer, of taking the journey alongside that particular brew. Try it fresh. Try it after six months and so on. Sometimes, simply, the beer can be the experience. We witness the overt and microscopic changes in our favorite beer and determine which vintages we liked best.
“Take Orval, one of my all time favorite beers, for example,” said Adams. “When consumed fresh, it has wonderful hop character and a subdued brettanomyces profile. As it ages, the hops dwindle and the Brett picks up. I keep various vintages of Orval in my cellar because I like the way it tastes at different stages of its development.”
The most sentimental reason to cellar your beers is that it’s good for a person’s mental health.”
Sometimes the enjoyment of a cellared beer can be influenced by the conviviality of friends, the beer an accent to the fun, not the centerpiece. After all, beer is meant to be shared and drunk, not hoarded.
By all means, have a diverse cellaring operation filled with beers ranging in style and from across the world. Take pictures. Plan bottle-corking dates.
There are many good reasons to cellar a beer; There are also bad reasons. Some beers will successfully sit in a basement and evolve beautifully. They’ll give you the drinking experience of the year; Other beers will disappoint you. They’ll be thin and flavorless or oxidized and unrecognizable messes. It is all about the experience.
Maybe the most sentimental reason to cellar your beers and take them out at a special opportunity is less about the beer than that it’s good for a person’s mental health.
Alcohol in general, but beer in particular, tends to unite. There are other common denominators over which we can bond, of course, but, according to a recent study, male friendships need that tangible face time to evolve and maintain themselves, whereas the fairer sex tends to be able to go lengthier spells of time without interfacing in person. Drinking a beer with friends necessitates that face time with friends.
It’s this fact, maybe, that makes the experience of drinking and sharing a long-held-onto bottle so important: Not only do you drink a beer that could be anywhere from bad to okay to good to great to transcendent, but you get to add intangible value to a friendship. This five-year old American barleywine will be something you did together forever.
Take it from me – we still talk about that Abacus.