At any serious gathering of beer enthusiasts these days, one question is bound to pop up again and again: What’s in your cellar?
Craft drinkers are aging some of their prized brews, putting off instant gratification to see how a beer’s profile changes over time, or saving that rare bottle of Cantillon or Goose Island Bourbon County Coffee Stout for a special occasion. Darker styles like stouts and barleywines, as well as sour and barrel-aged beers, often lose their rough edges after a year or two in the bottle.
Some beer geeks describe their cellars as “happy accidents,” a product of buying a lot of beer and not knowing what to do with it. Others are more intentional, methodically cataloging their brews and entering them into spreadsheets as they go.
Steve Smrcina of Watertown keeps a collection of 300 or so bottles from breweries such as 3 Fonteinen of Belgium, Russian River of Santa Rosa, Calif., and North Coast of Fort Bragg, Calif. For some beers, like Firestone Walker’s Anniversary series, Smrcina is “actively trying to improve the flavor profile, because there is integration and smoothing that comes with time.” In order to see how aging affects the beer, Smrcina and others will buy several bottles of the same brew and drink one fresh, one in a few months, and one down the road.
At Cambridge Brewing Co., brewmaster Will Meyers has been cellaring beer since 1993. His collection is now at 1,000 or so bottles. Meyers is enthusiastic about his collection, but cautions that beers can be ruined by extended cellaring, or by light and extreme temperature fluctuations. “The most important thing to remember when cellaring is that almost all beer is better when fresh,” he says. “Very few types of beer benefit from extended aging.”
One type you definitely don’t want to age is India pale ales, which lose their hop character quickly and are best consumed when you buy them. In the basement of his home, Meyers has a collection of Belgian lambics, Trappist beers, and others. He keeps “verticals” of certain brews, saving several from each year to compare the vintages. “You don’t need a fancy-pants dedicated room in your cellar,” he says, “but it should be a room or closet that is consistently cool and dark.”
In the city, those conditions can be difficult to set up. In his Roslindale condo, pianist and composer Keith Kirchoff stores four cases of beer in boxes underneath his piano. He stores two more cases behind the couch in the piano studio, which is temperature controlled.
Every cellar-dweller has a story of a mishap, Brian Kelly of Nashua among them. “Last night I drank a 2009 Rochefort 10, and it was really over the hill,” says Kelly. “Instead of the wonderfully bready, full-bodied Trappist ale I was expecting, it was quite watery and really lacking the complexity it had when it was 4 years old.”
And then, of course, there’s the social aspect of the hobby. Smrcina started his cellar when he was single.
“My girlfriend is supportive,” says Smrcina, “although when I moved out here to live with her it was interesting when her father was helping me unload and said, ‘I’ve never unloaded a beer truck before.’ ”Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.