Build Your Own Beer Cellar

That’s right, people age beer - several types undergo some amazing transformations after time in the cellar. Choosing the right type is crucial, and we’re here to help. Keep these points in mind:

  1. The main candidates for aging are beers with 8% abvs and up, i.e., imperial stouts, barleywines and Belgian strong ales.1 Also search for vintage dated beers (sure candidates for aging) or bottle conditioned beers, which grow dry with time.
  2. Find a dark and consistently cool (50°-60℉) place to box up your beer - not only is oxygen the enemy of beer but also heat and light. Nothing’s more disappointing than a fine beer skunked by poor cellar conditions!
  3. Purchase multiple bottles of beers to taste in order to see how they’re aging. Deciding when to enjoy a cellared beer is by no means an exact science. The only reliable way to determine when is to sample your bottles as they age.2

We’ll showcase some tried and true favorites that once cellared will provide you with refreshment for many years to come.

Part 1: Russian Imperial Stout

Breweries often release small batches of Russian Imperial Stout to great critical acclaim, with devotees scrambling to get their hands on a rare bottle or two. Some are so coveted that they have entire beer festivals celebrating their release. Thankfully there are plenty of amazing Russian Imperial Stouts that are readily available. As good as many of these are fresh, with time many transform into something really special, rivaling even the brightest cherry or the whitest of whales. Here are some of those classics, all of which are in stores now. All will age gracefully, gaining complexity over time.

North Coast Old Rasputin4 Pack/12oz Bottles

2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of this award winning Russian Imperial Stout. It’s one of the original American examples of the style and throngs of brewers and drinkers alike herald it as one of the best examples on the market. Available year round as a 4-pack for only $8.99, it’s an affordable way to study how RIS ages over time.

AleSmith Speedway Stout25.4oz Bottle

When we first heard AleSmith was finally coming to Chicagoland we were ecstatic. One of the most decorated breweries in California, their Speedway Stout is one of the highest rated examples of the style, and for good reason. Brewed with beans from San Diego’s Ryan Brother’s Coffee, it is rich, roasty and fruity with an incredible creamy mouthfeel. Fresh it shows a touch of its 12% abv, but that heat fades with time. Serve with either dark chocolate or your favorite blue cheese for an experience you won’t soon forget.

Lagunitas Imperial Stout22oz Bottle

Lagunitas likes to brew big beers, and this is one bold interpretation of the style. Pours inky black with aromas of dark chocolate and coffee on the nose. With some time its bold, smoky bitterness begins to fade giving way to chocolate and toffee. At only $4.49 a bottle it’s a great candidate for a vertical tasting, where different vintages of the same beer are opened at once in order to see how it develops over time.

Stone Imperial Russian Stout22oz Bottle

Stone is famous for their generous use of hops and their IRS is no exception. First brewed in 2000, we’ve opened some very old bottles over the years and rest assured this beer has some serious lasting power. Fresh it’s truly a monstrous brew. Licorice, coffee, and cocoa give way to a savory and roasty finish. With time the hoppiness fades and its rough edges become polished. Unlike our other recommendations this one is only released once a year, but it just hit our shelves so pick up a few before their all gone.

Schlafly Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout25.4oz Bottle

On the nose it’s an intoxicating mix of vanilla, toffee, dates and roasted pecans. Rich and decadent with notes of cocoa and coffee, leading to a bright spirited finish. This is a hidden gem from an unsung hero. As good as it is fresh, it also ages beautifully and with vintage dated 25.4oz bottles priced at $11.99 they are an affordable way to build up your cellar.

Part 2: Barley Wine & Old Ale

Few styles are better candidates for aging than barleywine and old ale. While the barleywine style originated in England, American interpretations often showcase a love for hops. Old ales tend to be big, malt forward brews sharing similarities with barelywine. Both styles tend to showcase ABV's in the double digits, adding to their aging potential. Here are some of our favorite examples, all proof that beer needn’t be rare to be world class.

Ale Smith Old Numbskull25.4oz Bottle

Old Numbskull is an incredibly complex beer. Toffee, coffee, chocolate, molasses, dates, grapefruit, pine… we could keep going. A healthy dose of hops keeps this so amazingly balanced that this is one of the few barleywines we love drinking fresh. Like AleSmith’s Speedway Stout and Wee Heavy, it becomes even more remarkable with age. With time Numbskull’s hop bitterness fades to the background with rich Madeira notes taking center stage.

Avery Hog Heaven22oz Bottle

While traditional English Barleywine is all about the malt, many American examples are hop monsters. Avery’s Hog Heaven is brewed with boatloads of hops, balancing with the malt sweetness. Think of it as a Double IPA dipped in caramel. While it’s a bit spirited on the finish, with some age the alcohol fades along with the intense bitter finish.

*Not available in Champaign.

Founders Old Curmudgeon4 Pack/12oz Bottles

Old Ales are famous for their rich malt complexity, and the addition of molasses makes Founder’s Curmudgeon one big bold beer. Given some time to rest, its peppery finish mellows, giving way to waves of toffee and caramel. Give this a try with your favorite chocolate dessert. Unlike our other recommendations, this one is released once a year, but it just hit our shelves, so grab yours before it’s gone.

North Coast Old Stock Ale6 Pack/12 oz Bottles

If you have doubts about aging beer, this beer will change your mind. We’ve tasted vintages nearing ten years of age and were blown away each time. That kind of longevity is the sign of impeccable craftsmanship. Brewed with England’s renowned Maris Otter malt, Old Stock Ale is a malt lover’s dream, with flavors reminiscent of caramel drenched raisins and figs. With time something magical happens as it develops flavors and aromas redolent of the finest Oloroso sherry and tawny port.

Dogfish Head Palo Santo4 Pack/12oz Bottles

You may have tried barrel aged beer, but not like this one. Palo Santo is aged in a large wooden tank made from Paraguayan Palo Santo wood. Palo Santo is Spanish for “Holy Wood.” Maybe it’s this special wood that makes this beer such an enigma. Roasty and malty with notes of caramel and vanilla, it drinks like a cross between a brown ale and an old ale. It’s delicious fresh, but lay this 12% beast down and watch it grow round with age.

1 There are of course exceptions to every rule - many sours and smoked beers, despite usually being lower in abv, also have great aging potential. Conversely, double or imperial IPAs, despite their high abv, are not good candidates for aging. Hop flavors and especially hop aromatics tend to fade rather quickly, so drink those brews as fast and fresh as possible.

2 Sour styles such as gueuze are nearly indestructible and we’ve popped twenty year old bottles that were still well carbonated and delicious. Conversely we’ve also tried bourbon barrel aged stouts that were only a few years old but had become dull and muted versions of their former selves.

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