Food Issue - Exploring the local beer underground
Beer geeks and the evolving art of cellaring
While the vast majority of the world's beer is best imbibed as close to its brewing as possible, an increasing number of craft beer aficionados are discovering the patient, rewarding art of cellaring. In closets, basements, wine fridges, and, in one particularly notable example, a former working gold mine in Boulder, Colo., fizzy fetishists are putting away barley wines, stouts, Belgian lambics, and all manner of high-alcohol, bottle-conditioned rarities. And then they wait, sometimes for years, to experience the delicious, complex flavor profiles that develop with age.
For more than a few Atlanta-area beer lovers, cellaring began out of necessity. Prior to 2004, Georgia had an alcohol-by-volume cap of 6 percent that led adventurous drinkers like Marietta craft beer consultant Matt Simpson to look outside the state for thrilling brews. "We'd make semi-regular trips to Chattanooga to buy a bunch of Stone and Samichlaus and all sorts of Belgians," he remembers. "It was worth a half-day trip to do that. After a period of time, I realized I was buying a whole lot more than I was drinking, and so it started to stockpile."
Simpson began building his beer trove in 1998 or '99, and it has since grown to "give or take 3,000 bottles," which is, by his estimation, one of the largest cellar collections in the world. But he's far from the only one doing it in the Atlanta metropolitan area. When 5 Seasons brewmaster Crawford Moran started homebrewing, he became smitten with Belgian styles, collecting them when he traveled and storing them in his closet. When the ABV cap was lifted and he opened 5 Seasons North in Alpharetta, he quickly started brewing a lot of Belgians to "lay down," as is the parlance among beer geeks. Although cellaring has been a major part of his professional life since opening the Alpharetta location in 2007, he realizes he's still in the minority. "Most people are shocked to discover that you can do that with beer," Moran says. "It's always fun to watch the lightbulb go on for people when they do get to experience something like this for the first time."
Brick Store co-owner Dave Blanchard is counting on more people getting into the experience. When he and some co-workers visited legendary Antwerp beer bar Kulminator in 2005 and saw the "phone-book sized list of rarities" the older couple running the place had been cellaring for years, he knew they had to bring the idea back home. He began collecting beer as soon as he returned stateside, while keeping his eye on a hidden, cavernous space that not many Decatur residents are probably aware of. "We had always known of the basement space of the old bank and the amazing old vaults that were housed there," Blanchard says. "The building butts up to the Brick Store, and our back door happens to be right next to that back door. We realized sitting at Kulminator that it would be plenty of space for as much beer as we could possibly hoard for as long as we wanted to do it, if we were able to acquire the space."
They did, and have since amassed a collection of almost 700 beers that are more than two years old, with another 100 to 150 that will be moving to the cellar room adjacent to their Belgian bar upstairs. Blanchard predicts the collection's growth will taper off around 800 to 900, as older bottles are sold in a more regular rotation. In addition to providing the necessary stock for vertical tastings, which involve comparing several vintages of an annually released beer in one sitting, Blanchard hopes the Brick Store cellar will help his pub stay "ahead of the game," and continue delighting customers in an increasingly competitive craft beer market. Plus, it's just good times. "It is so much fun to pop something that's five or six or seven years old next to the same beer fresh to compare the changes," he says. "Sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic. That's the really fun part is not knowing what you'll get."
The element of surprise that comes with any beer cellar is something a prospective cellarer needs to come to terms with up front. That being said, there are some basic guidelines worth adhering to. While a cellaring space need not be fancy (a dark closet toward the middle of a living space will do in a pinch), it should be cool (experts suggest 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and dark, with light humidity (50 to 70 percent suggested) and next-to-no temperature fluctuation (more than a 20 degree shift in either direction is bad news).
As for beer selection, high ABV is a good general rule, with the exception of Belgian sours, which often land in the 5 to 7 percent range while still cellaring well. "The higher alcohol level is what prevents spoilage," Moran says. "So it has to be north of 8 percent ABV to stand up to time." Barley wine is a favorite cellar style, its character lending well to a boozy, rounded-out flavor with time. Belgian quads and strong ales, imperial stouts, lambics, and saisons are all common as well. Opinions are mixed on hop-forward styles like India Pale Ales, since hoppier profiles tend to fade with time. Many, including Simpson, suggest they're simply not worth the effort when so many other styles lend better to the cellar process. "I've decided there are sufficient beers of cellaring property that don't use so much hops by the brewer's intention," he explains. "The brewer spends a lot of money and a lot of care placing those hops in the boil and in dry hopping and whatever follows. I decided at a certain point that I wanted to give the brewers the respect they deserve in creating that specific style, and stopped cellaring double IPAs because they're amazing fresh."
Beer-bible publications like All About Beer, Draft, and BeerAdvocate have thorough, easily Googleable how-to pages to walk interested parties through the cellaring process step-by-step. And at the end of the day (or year, as it happens with cellaring), even following best practices can sometimes lead to a crapshoot. "It's all one big experiment," Simpson says. "The whole thing is always an experiment. We know a lot more than we did before, but we still don't know down to the label. There are certain guidelines we can follow for cellaring beer, but that doesn't necessarily mean that every single brand is going to abide by them."
While some fresh beer advocates might bristle at the idea of cellaring, preferring a tasty beverage straight out of the brewery as opposed to the cellar, the increase in rare-beer releases in recent years has encouraged prolonged storage. And while most American beer drinkers might not realize beer can be saved and enjoyed later just like wine, awareness of cellaring among a particular section of the beer-obsessed public is at an all-time high. "I think it's greater among beer geeks," Simpson says. "I think among beer geeks, who are getting younger and younger, and more aware and more aware, I think it's becoming more of a thing."
Younger, indeed. A recent Imbibe story on beer cellars led with 24-year-old Grant Curlow's YouTube tour of the 700-some-odd bottles in his Indianapolis basement. In Decatur, 28-year-old motion-stills photographer Blake Tyers caught the cellaring bug about a year ago, when, on a whim, he asked everyone coming to celebrate his birthday with him to bring a beer suitable for aging. Each friend was also asked to include a note with his beer in hopes that one day they'd share the aged prize and accompanying memory with Tyers. He'll be doing the same thing at future birthdays to help build a formidable collection — one he hopes doesn't exist in his dad's wine cellar. For Tyers, it's all about the experience. "I've got a belief that good beer should be shared with your friends," he says. "Nearly every beer I crack, I pour some into another glass for a friend. The pub is where you meet friends, and important conversations and great moments can all be shared over a pint."
Beer has always been a social beverage, one that melts away conversational awkwardness and shyness. But cellaring makes the commitment akin to a real-life relationship, one that can be measured in years and improve with time. Moran, for instance, will soon be brewing a beer with his 16-year-old daughter to enjoy on her 21st birthday. "When we were building the Westside space, she came down on weekends and helped paint," Moran says. "She's a great kid. And I can't even begin to express how much fun it will be to actually brew a beer with her. It'll be a dad highlight and a career highlight all wrapped into one."
Tyers is looking forward to one day sharing birthday-gift vertical tastings with friends. And, as his circle of pals becomes more erudite, so too will his stash become more enviable. "When I crack open a bottle of great beer my friend gave me on a previous birthday and share it with them, it's a great simple moment," Tyers says. "We can reflect on the change of the beer, the change of our life, maybe a funny story from that year, and the constant over all that time, which is our friendship."