How Coronavirus Changed My Mind About Beer Cellaring

One of the first beers I popped when the quarantine started was Papier, The Bruery’s first anniversary beer. Dating back to 2009, it was the oldest among an entire shelf dedicated to the company’s coveted barrel-aged strong and sour ales. I’ve never been a member of its Hoarders Society, but I fear I’ve got some beer hoarding issues.

Remember all those articles years back about how to properly cellar beer? Did they neglect the last step: open and enjoy? If there’s one thing social media has shown me in an era devoid of social-drinking, it’s that quite a few folks have beer cellars bigger than their livers. What’s the psychology behind the desire to build up impressive collections but never drink them down? To find out, I asked Dr. Jennifer Denton, a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral health and substance abuse.

The first thing Denton consoled me about was the habit among brewers, publicans, and other beer vivants to share photos of their nightly bottles, “whalez” and otherwise. They aren’t truly hoarders. “Whether it’s beer collecting, wine, baseball cards… you determine if it’s a problem if it’s interfering with your life,” she says. “Does it get in the way of your job or relationships?”

While mental health specialists typically treat hoarding as a disorder along the lines of OCD, a quick gander at most beer cellars will reveal a key difference. The bottle collection may be crammed due to space limitations, but it’s often arranged in some semblance of an orderly fashion in a dedicated fridge (or room).

Don Scheidt, a Portland, Oregon-based blogger, has amassed some 500 age-worthy beers since starting his cellar, most of which are “loosely sorted” by style. “I have lambics from the 1990s, including some with deteriorated labels that are possibly even older,” he says.

It’s ironic that these malted menageries were often designed—destined in fact—to be shared with special people on special occasions. As life goes on, we become busy or distracted, and hang on to beers well past their extended best-by dates. According to Denton, we may attach meaning to certain bottles simply because “some of us were groomed by our families to think that if something’s important, it’s a special occasion.” 

A prolonged stay-at-home order changed that calculus for many. If this pandemic adjusts how we diminish our cellars, notes Denton, maybe it can be best understood using psychology’s cognitive triangle, which stresses that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intrinsically interconnected. Perhaps we were afraid that if we actually drank a cellared beer, the memory of that beer—the first time we had it, the trip to get it, the loved ones we shared it with—would fade. Once the bottle goes, so too does the memory. Now those glass containers seem like liquid time capsules, a way to revisit happier times as we shelter at home. 

So if a global quarantine is good for something besides reducing the spread of disease, maybe it’s making those of us with the urge to collect finally thin the herd. Not so much to create room for new bottles that we’ll sit on and brag about, but to finally taste beers that were brewed to be drunk, not memorialized.

Papier, at this point, is an apt word since, yes, the 14.5-percenter has gone a bit papery. Oxidation, even in a wax-dipped bottle, will do that. Still, the malt made for a decadent after-supper sipper, as did the booziness. But because of quarantine, no one besides me got within six feet of the bottle and I was unable to polish it off. Instead, the chalice I’d rested on my nightstand perfumed my dreams.

“The novel coronavirus suggests more drinking at home,” says Scheidt from inside his own beer bunker. “I’m digging into beers from years ago, and more often than not, finding them surprisingly satisfying.” And, he adds, it “turns out some stale beers make great carbonnades.”

Brian Yaeger is an author and Cicerone who’s no longer teaching the UC Santa Barbara’s first beer- and cider-tasting classes, so he’s gone virtual by conducting beer classes on Zoom.

Author: Brian Yaeger

Author of beer books "Red, White, & Brew" & "Oregon Breweries" and, soon, "American Doughnut."

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