You can’t blame an artist for wanting to control how art is consumed. Chefs do this all the time — think of the servers at Chicago’s Alinea explaining what order to chew versus inhale — but even the chefs aren’t there for every forkful. Graphic artists hang their works on the wall, and maybe they hover in the gallery, but it’s still your choice to look for as long as you want, from whatever angle you prefer.
As brewers progress on the same celebrity track that chefs have been on for a few years now, it’s completely understandable that they’re going to react the same way. A couple weeks ago, Half Acre Beer Company took a stand on the practice of cellaring beer — maintaining a stash beyond what the owner plans to drink immediately, basically.
“We don’t advocate aging our beer under any circumstance,” the brewery published on its Instagram feed. “While there is the chance that certain beers could improve over time, there are far too many unknowns that could prevent that from being true.”
Completely reasonable. Beer that doesn’t live up to the brewer’s intent because of delayed consumption is a big deal when a person who drinks a beer past its peak puts up a crappy rating online, and negative hype starts to build by no fault of the brewer’s. And there are plenty of beers that have gone from delicious when fresh to ruined by infection in a matter of a month or two.
Earlier in 2017, Mike Zoller wrote for Porch Drinking that he was done cellaring, too. “Those [rare] Jester King beers I was so excited to get [at a limited release in Chicago]; when I opened one up about 18 months later it was no good.” He proclaimed that he will no longer squirrel any beers away, starting now.
My issues with those fairly logical positions are these. First, and I can’t write this with enough implied all-caps emphasis, what Jester King beer is “no good” after a year and a half? Even its hoppy farmhouse ale — hops are often the first volatile flavor to dissipate — is excellent years later. Talk about beer privilege; “my rare, apparently unlabeled and hand-delivered Jester King beer was no good!”
Second, when a brewery releases a beer with a ticketed event — literally, an event beer — and allows each ticketholder to purchase up to four or six or eight large-format bottles, are the buyers really expected to pound those double-digit alcohol beauts in a week? Half Acre itself sold a “Whole Enchilada” package for its recent Big Hugs stout release that included 10 bombers (and some merch) for $199. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to throw down two hundred bucks of beer like it’s a box of Capri Sun pouches.
Central Waters just held its 19th anniversary party this last Saturday, and each attendee had the option to buy up to six bottles of Nineteen, a 13-percent alcohol barrel-aged imperial stout. This is a sought-after beer, and a delicious one at that, so of course I bought my full share. And yeah, we opened one fresh, with friends who hadn’t been able to attend the release, later that night.
I’m not looking to hoard. We didn’t even come home with all our bottles, having traded one away before we even left Amherst. I’ll pass a few bottles on to friends, but sure, the rest we’ll hang on to for drinking and sharing down the road. And it’ll still be delicious, even if some of the characteristics shift and change over time.
Central Waters knows this, and hasn’t (to my knowledge) ever gone on a rant about drinking fresh versus cellaring. Even though Central Waters has had problems with bad barrels causing quality issues with its beers in the past, it still doesn’t rail on drinkers to consume ASAP. They do their due diligence in making the beer, and trust us to drink it how we want.
Plenty of brewers get it. Stone Brewing has released Enjoy After, a Bretted IPA series intended to be matured for a time, tweaking its Enjoy By series that’s meant to be consumed immediately. Hops and Brettanomyces get along fabulously over time in the bottle. Deschutes has a whole series of beers that have been marked with a “Best After” date on the label. (This changed with the recent release of Scotch and brandy barrel-aged Abyss, which only shows a bottled-on date.) The brewery even offers advice on how to cellar its beers.
Fretting over the practice of cellaring is nothing new. There has been the confessions of a self-described hoarder and the musings of someone struggling to find a middle ground. There’s been at least one report of someone straight up getting arrested for selling his cellar (the first time I’ve heard of someone getting nailed for reselling beer who wasn’t also trying to move fraudulent or repackaged beer). Don’t do that, I guess.
Breweries can wish for whatever they want as far as how we drink their product. Put advice on the bottle labels, I say; beer geeks read the hell out of those. But the only way to ensure that beer is consumed fresh is to only sell it on draft. Anything packaged becomes the buyer’s prerogative. It’s something I’ve said before in this column, but I’ll say it again: You do you, beer drinkers. My bottles of Nineteen will be making me and my beer-loving friends happy for years to come.
If you’re looking for advice on starting your own cellar stash, and want to do right by your beers, here’s a nice bit of advice from Avery Brewing’s president and brewmaster, Adam Avery. Basically, keep it out of the sun and not too warm. Sunlight does nothing good for 99.99 percent of all beer, and whatever changes are going to come out of the bottle over time will be sped up the warmer the beer is stored.