Walt Powell’s beer cellar is a carefully crafted library of rare and curious brews.
Beer bottles of various shapes, colors and sizes line the shelves like volumes of classic novels, stacked in repetition so there’s always a copy available, and the closet is packed with cardboard boxes brimming with bottles, tucked into every available nook or cranny of the space. The arrangement appears haphazard and chaotic, but upon closer inspection, there is a method to the madness.
An avid beer collector and active participant in Austin’s growing craft beer scene (he’s also Vice President of Operations for Austin’s Homefield Grill and Flix Brewhouse), Powell takes a studied approach to organizing his beer. Not exactly a cellar in the traditional sense of the word, he set up his collection in a spare room of his home. Adjustable shelving units line every wall, maroon bed sheets hang above the windows, and a modest floor AC unit dispenses a cool 58-degree chill.
As he walks me through the assembly, you can almost see memories bubbling to the surface. His eyes light up, like a librarian re-discovering a favorite first edition, as he comes across particularly notable acquisitions. From the entire shelf of Stone Brewing’s Vertical Epic series to the Thomas Hardy’s Ale from 1975, each of his 1,100 or so bottles tells a story, and it’s easy to see he finds satisfaction in sharing each one.
After an hour or so of pouring narratives out from each bottle, it became apparent that building a reputable home cellar is not as easy as stuffing bottles under the stairs and waiting for the right moment to crack open the caps, and as the chilly stream of processed air continued its unrelenting atmosphere control, it also sparked many practical questions as well. Why 58 degrees? Why the sheet-covered windows?
Powell says that when it comes to keeping rare and specialty brews for an extended period of time, it behooves any enthusiast to follow some basic rules to avoid spoilage. Establishing the right environment will ensure the best flavors will endure or evolve as the liquid rests. Things like light, temperature, and styles can all have an impact on how a beer ages.
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At Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania, the brewing team has a cellar of beer stored for experimentation to see how well each will age over time. Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster and President, and Stephanie Meyer, the brewery’s Western Area Sales Manager, have a few tips on things every aspiring home collector should consider when beginning their stash.
Off the bat, Covaleski said Powell was smart to cover his windows with light-blocking material. “Darkness is preferred,” said Covaleski, because light degrades some of the components of beer, especially the hops. This is also one reason why many brewers can their beers — to prevent unnecessary light from affecting the contents within.
Beyond light, avoiding fluctuations in temperature is also crucial to maintain the soul of a brew over time. In Powell’s cellar, a generic thermometer floats in a pint glass filled with water, so he can make sure the environment stays a cool 58 degrees.
When deciding which temperature to aim for, Covaleski warns that bottle-conditioned beer and finished, filtered beer require different storing conditions, because the ideal temperature for both categories differs slightly.
Keeping filtered beer below 50 degrees will slow degradation, but bottle-conditioned beer should be stored slightly warmer to ensure that the active yeast stays stable. “Since there is a living organism — yeast — still in suspension in a bottle-conditioned beer, you don’t want to expose it to too high of a temperature, because that will cause the yeast to undergo stress,” he said. “That’s why we recommend anywhere from 50-60 degrees.” When the yeast gets too hot, it dies, “bringing off-flavors that can be characterized as ‘soapy’ or ‘bologna-like.’ ”
It’s also important to store bottles standing upright. “You can get the same corking effect that wine would suffer from, so you want to avoid interaction between the beer and any permeable surface,” Covaleski said. Avoiding oxidation is also important. Some collectors go the extra mile to seal each bottle in wax to prevent air from entering the bottle, because uninvited oxygen can quickly ruin a brew.
Stephanie Meyer started her collection a few years ago. While she has a modest assortment (about 120 bottles between her home stash and one she keeps at her parent’s house to avoid temptation), she learned the secrets of cellaring quickly, explaining that choosing the right styles of beer to age is key. Even in the most carefully controlled atmospheric conditions, not all styles will age pleasantly.
For example, lagers should be consumed when they are young and crisp. “Obviously when you drink a fresh Prima Pils, you can tell the difference between that and one that’s old. You lose a lot of that flavor. You don’t get that sharpness,” she says.
The same principle goes for IPAs, which should also be sipped as close to bottling as possible so that the hop profile remains fresh. Over time, the bright hop essence will fade, turn bitter or otherwise become unfavorable. Powell agrees that while most IPAs don’t do well over time, he’s found one or two double or triple IPAs that surprised him by maintaining their personality despite old age, probably due to their higher alcohol and sugar content. “If you know beer,” says Powell, “you can have a very well-educated guess on what’s going to age well, but there are always surprises.”
Heavily malted brews like porters and stouts, and high-alcohol beers (8% ABV or higher) age well when stored properly, and both Meyer and Powell are fans of Belgians, which Meyer believes mature beautifully. “They’re probably some of the best beers to age. Sours age pretty well too. Anything that’s kind of already been aged in oak can usually take a few more years in the bottle.”
Though Meyer and Powell both shared stories about vintage 15- to 30-year-old brews that were “one of the best beers I’ve ever had,” the ideal time frame to cellar beer is shorter than one might think. “By lots of experimentation and diligence, we find that the bottle-conditioned beers we produce really don’t undergo any net positive changes after about 4-5 years,” Covaleski said. For this reason, Victory, like many other breweries, label bottles with recommended expiration dates. Fixed beers, on the other hand, won’t mature as noticeably over time as long as they are protected from oxygen and sunlight. “Beers that are not bottle-conditioned, but are well-packaged, it’s safe to give it the round number of a year or so,” Covaleski said.
So why do some people wait decades to pop a cork on a filtered brew when it may or may not turn bad? Covaleski says some save pasteurized beer to compare with future batches from the brewery. “I think the curiosity angle of it is a very valid one. I think that’s part of the fun.” Some collectors buy just to sell to others for profit. Others wish to store beer for long periods of time to simply have access to a style or release that might not be available again in the future. Meyer keeps certain Victory brews for this reason, and also collects to keep track of interesting beer she discovers while traveling for work. Powell enjoys tracking a beer’s transformation as it rests for years, to see how the flavor profile might change, and finds great satisfaction in tasting rare beers that aren’t easy to find anymore.
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Back in Powell’s cellar, as the tales of the triumphs and tribulations he endured to secure certain special releases continued, my mind began to wander to the most central question of all — how do you know when to open a bottle?
He explained that while amassing a substantial collection represents a point of personal pride, most dedicated beer scavengers will say one of the best rewards is sharing their sudsy wealth with others, a social ritual that makes the time, energy and money a worthwhile investment.
Powell says he has friends in many different states that will frequently ship him a bottle of something they believe he will enjoy, and vice versa, without persuasion. The practice helps him maintain an ongoing connection with other enthusiasts, something he values highly. “Beer is a social thing, meant to be shared. I’ve got a lot of people that I open beer with and given beer to… just because. I have no desire to selfishly drink all of this.”
Meyer echoes Powell’s sentiment, explaining that everything she buys and puts in her cellar is meant to be shared. “It’s mostly about the camaraderie for me. I grew up in Nebraska and I recently went to this amazing bottle share where we all pulled out the best stuff we had from our cellars, because we hadn’t seen each other for years. There’s this strong sense of community and also a little bit of showmanship. It brings out so many fun and unique conversations,” she said. “Then that magic moment when you pull something out that nobody’s ever seen and they get excited about it, there’s a little bit of pride in that too, that you have something rare that they don’t have. And everyone’s palate is different, so what I pick out of a 2007 Storm King, someone else will come up with something completely different. That’s what great about bottle shares, is there’s usually something for everyone’s palate.”
As I maneuvered out of Powell’s spare bedroom, he insisted on sharing a bottle with me, to illustrate his point. Since he had an ample number of Victory Storm King vintages lying around, I thought it would be interesting to see what flavors I might pick out of the beer, since Meyer suggested it would likely age well.
When I popped open the 2005 Imperial Stout, heavy oak aromas rose from the glass. The liquid tasted mellow and under-carbonated; the flavors soft and dark, centering on oak, molasses and dried fruit flavors. While I think I prefer the fresh version of the style better, tasting an 8-year-old stout is an experience I won’t forget anytime soon, because Powell was kind enough to share it with me.
And you can bet next time I see him, I’ll be sure to bring a bottle along to return the favor.
The chosen bottles below were selected by avid beer collectors, Stephanie Meyer, Victory Brewery’s Western Area Sales Manager, and Walt Powell, Vice President of Operations for Austin’s Homefield Grill and Flix Brewhouse.
Nebraska Brewing Co Fat Head
Rich molasses flavors with a Sugar Baby-candy finish. Velvet mouth feel.
Equinox Mid Winter Warmer
Dark dried fruit that ages into a nice brown sugar finish.
Victory Storm King
As this beer ages, the hops fall off and the bitter coffee notes become a rich, warm blanket of mocha flavors.
The hotness falls off and develops a beautiful breadfruit profile with a bit of brown sugar.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot or Stone Old Guardian
Both are really hoppy American barleywines. The hops will fade, and the warmer sugar flavors will develop as the beer mellows.
St. Bernardus Abt. 12 Quadrupel
When laid down for a year or two, the alcohol tends to take on a sherry like quality and the rich dark earth fruit notes become more dry.
Alesmith Speedway Stout, Three Floyds Dark Lord Imperial Stout, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, or Founders Breakfast Stout
The alcohol will become less hot, hops will fade, and the roasty characteristics become more accentuated.