The Liquid Archive: Why Your Beer Library Matters

From quality control to recipe tweaks to pulling out those vintage bottles for a special occasion, there is real value in systematically keeping old beers around for later reference.

Stephen Beaumont Sep 2, 2022 - 10 min read

The Liquid Archive: Why Your Beer Library Matters Primary Image

Beers and other beverages kept for testing in the lab at Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: Joe Stange.

It is an old and largely true aphorism that “the best beer is consumed at the brewery gate,” an acknowledgement that freshness is paramount to the enjoyment of beer. While this is certainly true for the vast majority of the world’s beer volumes—easily 99 percent or more—it does raise questions about what happens when the beer is not in peak condition.

How should a brewery respond, for instance, when a customer complains about a badly oxidized lager that was purchased within the beer’s date-coding period? Or, what if a brand loyalist notes a distinct difference in the character of a particular batch of pale ale? Conversely, what if a beer is found to be aging most graciously, growing even better as it spends months or even years in the cellar?

The answer to all those questions may be found in the same place: the brewery’s beer library.

We’re not talking about books, but rather an organized collection of beers, stored in such a way that they may be easily accessed according to need. It could contain multiple cases or just a few bottles or cans drawn from every packaging run, kept on hand until they reach the end of their codes. It might also include larger numbers of beers expected to improve with age.


For QA/QC, Sooner and Later

“We don’t have a library so much as we have libraries,” says John Mallett, vice president of brewing and quality at Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery. “From a quality standpoint, we keep samples from the beginning, middle, and end of every packaging run, and store them until well past their stated shelf life, with hundreds and hundreds of cases built up. Our vintage beers are kept separately, and there we also have pallets and pallets of beer.”

At times the sheer quantity might look excessive—he jokes that they are trying to cut down—but Mallett is unapologetic about the brewery’s generous inventory of beer used for quality control. “QC samples are kept near the lab at various temperatures—some at ambient room temp, like they would be at a convenience store—and they are added to and pulled very regularly, on a daily basis, really,” he says. “A lot get used early on in the process, so the turnover is pretty high.”

Likewise, quality control is the main reason for the beer library at Great Lakes Brewery in Ontaria, Canada, according to Cole Raiskums, the company’s quality-assurance lab technician. “We generally carry samples up to a year back [because] we do not expect our product to be shelf-stable for [more than] a year, especially warm-stored,” he says. “So, the library represents what we expect our customers to encounter in the wild, with the worst-case scenario being a year old.”

So, Raiskums says, if a customer files a complaint about a specific beer, the brewery can run chemical and microbiological testing on brewery-stored cans. When the process is deemed safe, they will also run sensory panels on the same beer.

Wider Benefits

But while QC might be the library’s primary purpose, Raiskums says that there are other situations when they might access it.


“We have used it in the past to compare old and new recipes of some of our brands and make decisions [about] our alterations,” he says. “We have also pulled from our library for educational purposes—teaching our retail staff how to recognize what an old version of our brands tastes like, so they can make informed decisions about when a product is no longer appropriate to sell.”

One brewery that combines the QC benefits with the library’s significant commercial applications is Russian River in Santa Rosa and Windsor, California. Co-owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo says that while the library “for sure” gives them the ability to go back and taste for a quality check, the more practical application is in the Russian River’s two taprooms and at numerous special events.

“We always have at least one library beer available at each of our pubs, and often more than one,” he says. “Additionally, we will take library beers and often library large-format bottles to beer festivals to pour, [and] the guests love it.”

Because Russian River has an extensive line-up of mixed-culture and barrel-aged beers, Cilurzo says that in addition to being able to offer vintage beers to customers, the library allows them to closely monitor how their specialty beers evolve over time. “At Russian River, we mostly age our wild and barrel-aged beers, [and] these most certainly change with time—and even more so if we are bottle-conditioning a clean or funky beer with Brett,” he says. “The educational component is priceless.”

Rationalizing the Archive

Another Californian brewery with an ample beer library is The Lost Abbey in San Marcos. Cofounder and COO Tomme Arthur says maintaining it was a decision made specifically with that educational component in mind.


“Many years ago, I decided that it was very important to put at least one case of any release away,” Arthur says. “Many of these beers were things we’d never made before, so having a back stock was important for learning flavor development and maturation relative to our processes and production methods.”

Noting that the brewery’s library now spans some 10 to 15 years—and confessing that it is probably “time to start thinning the herd and letting some of it go”—Arthur says that its organization within the brewery has been a bit of an issue.

“I would love to tell you that we have a system,” he says. “But for the most part, we just put the beers in a specific space and, from time to time, inventory what’s on the pallet. The beer exists in the library to be checked on [regularly].”

Somewhat more sophisticated in his approach is Valter Loverier, owner and brewer of Italy’s Loverbeer. His brewery is known for specializing in beers worthy of cellaring. “[More than] 20 years ago, I surveyed all those beers suitable for aging and realized that there were very few bottles that indicated the year of production, [instead] only listing a preferable consumption date,” he says. “So, in 2009, when I started production, I decided that all my beers would be designed for aging, that they had to carry the production year on the neck, and that I would keep a historical archive of all my creations.”

To keep track of that archive, Loverier maintains an extensive spreadsheet loaded with references to where the beer is located in the warehouse, the size and format of the packages, quantity stored, and so on. He says it’s a complicated process for a brewery as small as his, especially since he must balance demand for his beers with his desire to age them in-house. “There is never enough,” he says. Yet, as a close friend once told him, those beers “are like your children. When they are grown up, you have to let them go.” So, each year he adds an old collection to the sales list.

Making Room

Finding room for a library—especially a large one—can be a challenge, particularly for small breweries with limited space. Even at Russian River, Cilurzo and his team have had to get creative.

“At our old production brewery, I re-purposed an office that wasn’t in use in one of our warehouses, installed a small HVAC wall unit, and that did the trick,” Cilurzo says. “At our current production brewery [in Windsor], we had some unused space in our barrel room underneath the coolship room, which is up on the second story. The space was already part of the barrel room, which we keep at 58°F [14°C], perfect for a beer library, so I guess you could say we got lucky with this design.”

While there’s an obvious cost to maintaining a large quantity of beer in reserve, the brewers who manage it are unanimous in their endorsement of the practice. Whether it’s Tomme Arthur, referring to large stocks of their more obscure and unique beers as “part of our ‘savings plan,’ to be released from time to time when we feel the market is ready for them,” or John Mallett arguing that in terms of QA/QC, “the real cost would be in not having a library,” all find significant value in maintaining their libraries.

A more poignant observation comes from Valter Loverier, who says that besides helping Loverbeer stand out as a producer of vintage beers for the Italian and international markets, his stocks of past brews are a way to “preserve the history of the brewery.”