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Session #73: A different sort of beer audit

Thomas Hardy's aleSee that cork? There was a time, not long before the photo was taken, that the top of the cork and the surrounding glass were dead level.

Occasionally a beer like this will reach out, smack you upside the head, and make a gesture like this, essentially screaming, “I’m 40 years old, drink me.”

More often, you’ll screw it up. Stick a beer behind some others in the cellar. Let it sit long enough you hate to part with it. Eventually you’ll have a collector’s item. Valued at auction only for the bottle itself and label. (Yes, a wink and a nod in the direction of eBay.)

Years ago, a friend’s sister died. She had a few cases of wine she’s tucked away when he husband died several years ago. Our friends wondered which of these might be particularly good to drink now (understand that “now” was then). They asked me to look at them. I don’t really know that much about wine, but I brought along a couple of vintage books — the ones that list which years are good for which regions. I didn’t need the books. These were obviously old bottles of cheap wine, some red, some white, like it mattered.

Age does not make most wine better. It certainly does not make most beer better.

The SessionHold that thought as we consider the topic of The Session #73: Beer Audit. Sort of consider, because to be honest, what follows does not come from the list of suggested topics.

Not that long ago beers like Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the one so determined at the top of this post to pop the cork, were an anomaly. Beers weren’t as strong, packaging technology wasn’t as good. There were lots of reasons not to cellar beer.1

The beer world has also changed in other ways, ultimately because what drinkers want is different (or at least broader). Not only are there more strong beers, but more beers packed with all sorts of ingredients, more beers aged in barrels, more crazy beers, more beers you might as well lay down because they sure as shit aren’t drinkable right now.

Check out the links that will pop up at Pints and Pubs today. I suspect there will be plenty of photos of drop-dead beer collections. And beyond the relatively few participating in The Session there are hundreds (thousands?) who have even more impressive libraries. And there’s every chance that some of the bottles we’re talking about will be better with five years or ten years on them than most Thomas Hardy’s were at five and ten.

The first vintage of Hardy’s was brewed in 1967 and released in 1968. Think of the movies finished in 1967 and up for the Oscars in 1968. Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Doctor Dolittle.

Aside from the last one — anybody up for laying down some cans of Pabst to watch along with Doctor Doolittle? — those are classics, if occasionally dated. They age better than beer. I saw them on the screen then (even DD) and I’ve seen them relatively recently (except for DD). I didn’t drink a Hardy’s in 1968, but I did taste the contents of that 1968 bottle in 2008.

So given that the topic today is beer audit I’m thinking about my relationship with beer, why I choose to drink what I do at particular times, why I choose to occasionally cellar a few beers, why I pick the ones I do, why I decide to haul one out.

That’s all, just thinking about it.

*****

1 In case you feel the need to educate me about the history of cellaring, I know there have long been some beers to lay down, including lambics and others with considerable heft. If you want to read more about the latter, I suggest you buy a copy of Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers for a proper footnote.

New Beer Rules

SamichlausWith a nod toward Bill Maher’s “New Rules” as opposed to Miller’s Man Laws …

THE BACKGROUND: A little over a week ago we were in California for some meetings. For evening diversion, Real Beer co-founder Mark Silva brought along vintage beers for “vertical” tastings (where you sample the same beer across a number of years).

In that spirit, Banjo Bandolas hauled down some old beers from the 1980s his uncle, Bud Lang, had given him. Lang was the first managing editor at All About Beer magazine, but these were not beers carefully cellared for a special occasion. They were beers that spent cool winters and hot summers in a Los Angeles garage.

Some were strong beers we might have hoped would stand up to those temperature swings but others – like the Millstream lager out of Iowa – had no chance.

The most interesting looking beers were a Thomas Hardy’s Ale from 1983, Samichlaus from 1986, Mort Subite Gueuze from the 1980s (no date) and Anchor Old Foghorn from the 1980s (again, no vintage). They would all sell for a chunk on eBay, but Banjo pointed out that in good conscience he could never sell beer that he suspected would taste like we found out these did.

We drank the beers (not all at once) against other vintages that had been stored in friendlier conditions. In each case they were the oldest beer in the lineup, and in each case the least enjoyable. Maybe it was age, but mostly it seemed like the garage won.

The 1996 Samichlaus (brewed in 1995, packaged in 1996, a lager that had spent 10 years in the bottle) was spectacular, rich and complex. The 1986 – at the time the strongest beer in the world (Sam Calagione was still in high school) – tasted like prune juice mixed with vodka. The difference between the ’83 Hardy’s and an ’89 Silva brought was as dramatic.

In each case, the well-cellared beers gained complexity, drank smoother, and acted like we hope beers will when we lay them down. The cooked beers were lifeless, not just wanting when it comes to carbonation, but one-dimensional, single-note beers.

One other thing they shared in common, and that was lack of good closure. The Mort Subite cork crumbled when I pulled it from the bottle, and on each of the other three the inside of the cap was rusted.

Giving us …

NEW BEER RULE #1: When you open a beer for a vertical tasting and there is rust under the cap it’s time to seriously lower your expectations for what’s inside the bottle.

Rusted cap

Vintage beers: Restaurants and auctions

Big feetHere’s another prediction for 2007 I should have made: Vintage beers will command more attention.

Item 1: Liquid Solutions, which sells beer through the mail and from its Oregon City store, plans to begin auctioning vintage beers next week (Jan. 19).

First up are a bottle of Chimay Grand Reserver from 1994, a six-year vertical of Sierra Nevada Big Foot from 1997-2002, and a 1996 bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

Item 2: Manhattan’s chic Gramercy Tavern now has a vintage menu that includes about 25 beers, created with the help of Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver.

“Generally they’re stronger beers, darker beers. They’re not kind of easy-drinking things; they’re more for an after-dinner drink, good with cheese and chocolate dessert, that kind of thing,” Kevin Garry, Gramercy’s assistant beverage director, tells the New York Post.

The star of the list is the 1992 Thomas Hardy, which sells for $23 (that’s a 6.33-ounce bottle). Oliver provided those bottles and says in the story, “It’s almost a little underground secret among beer aficionados, you know, where you might be able to find the good stuff.”

Or you can just be lucky. We always had a fond spot for Hardy’s when it was brewed at the Eldridge Pope brewery, which we toured in 1994 (there are multiple stories there – including days of walking in the English countryside), but weren’t really looking for it in Amarillo, Texas, in May of 1999.

While filling the gas tank before heading south to Palo Duro Canyon I noticed a liquor store next door, and since I was done pumping and Daria and Sierra were still inside the gas station I ducked into the store.

I spotted two four-packs of Thomas Hardy in one cooler, pulled them out and saw there were from 1992. There were $10.95 a four-pack. The clerk seemed a little surprised that somebody would be smiling so broadly while spending that much for eight small bottles.

Later a friend asked my why I hadn’t suggested a discount because the beer was old. (Really.)

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