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What Vintage is that Six-Pack?

Four-star restaurants and neighborhood pubs are increasingly obsessed with aged beers that have been cellared for years, just like wine—and with price tags to match.

In the back of my closet is a 36-bottle wine refrigerator the size of R2-D2. Everyone knows that the wines in this fridge are off-limits, and woe is he who pilfers from my cache. That’s because these wines aren’t for drinking—at least not yet. I bought these bottles of Barolo, Hermitage and Bordeaux because they have the potential to turn from great to mind-blowing after a few decades of careful aging. People have been doing this kind of thing since before the days of Downton Abbey; it’s nothing new. More recently, however, a growing group of people are doing the same thing with beer.

There are bulletin boards dedicated to the topic, a heated resale market on eBay (where a seven-year-old bottle of barley wine from Alaska’s Midnight Sun Brewery recently sold for $1,500) and aficionados with 100-plus-bottle vintage beer collections. I met one collector who ages beer solely with the goal of increasing its value—he doesn’t drink at all. (Another collector calls him the Keyser Söze of the craft-beer world.) Aged and vintage beers have even made their way into top restaurants like New York City’s Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern, both of which have multipage beer lists featuring selections that go back to the late 1990s, priced at upward of $70 per bottle.

To try and understand this excitement over aged ales, I called Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, who also edited the recently released Oxford Companion to Beer and wrote the section on aging. I met him at the brewery’s headquarters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a tasting. He started with a simple comparison, pouring side-by-side glasses of a 2006 and 2011 Brooklyn Brewery Local 1, a golden-orange Belgian-style ale brewed with raw cane sugar. Despite all his years of experience, he was eager for the taste test. I realized what I was witnessing was something new to the enjoyment of beer, even for a pro like Oliver.

Both bottles of Local 1 were excellent, for different reasons. The younger beer was simply more beer-like, with hops and bitterness. The older beer had a bready, yeasty character, with an almost umami richness to it. “This one I would pair with eel,” said Oliver. “Or foie gras. Something that will complement the older beer and enhance its qualities.” We tasted other beers, too: Brooklyn Brewery’s 2003, 2008 and 2011 Black Chocolate Stouts. In each instance, the older beers had actually improved as they aged, a pretty revolutionary idea in the beer world.

Vintage Beer
In search of exceptional vintage beer, Charles Antin turned to the Web.
Illustration © Lauren Tamaki.

The beers I tried with Oliver were excellent but relatively young; I wanted to taste a beer that was old enough to buy its own beer. Though it pales in comparison to the market for vintage wine, there is a frenzied online trading and selling scene for vintage beer. I logged on to beeradvocate.com, the epicenter of vintage beer trading (its motto: Respect Beer). Navigating the online forum can be a bit intimidating for outsiders. Nothing will get the Internet beer trolls more worked up than incorrectly valuating a beer and suggesting an inappropriate trade, so you have to make sure you fit in properly before striking up a conversation. Offering an unfair trade can be seen as uneducated—or worse, insulting—so my friend Mike, an avid beer collector, was happy to act as my chaperone into this unfamiliar territory.

Mike posted that we were in search of some very old vintage beer, and Caveman Lawyer (real name: James Bruce, a business and estate-planning lawyer) replied that he happened to have four bottles of Old Knucklehead Barley Wine (not actually wine, but an English style of highly alcoholic beer), vintages 1989 to 1993, to trade. Bruce discovered a cache in his father’s basement in Portland, Oregon, near the brewery, and has found a ravenous market for them. We ended up trading a case of assorted East Coast beers valued at $120 (including a bottle of Hill Farmstead that Mike drove six-and-a-half hours to northern Vermont to acquire) for five 187-milliliter bottles of vintage Old Knucklehead Barley Wine.

When the Old Knuckleheads arrived, we opened them all at once. There was still some carbonation, and the oxidization had occurred slowly, leaving what seemed like a slightly fizzy Amontillado sherry. These weren’t the kind of beers you would drink by the pint, but neither would you drink a pint of port. I could see drinking these beers with a cigar and a chocolate soufflé, or in a ski lodge with the Most Interesting Man in the World.

So which beers are the best candidates for the cellar? First, let’s talk about the ones that are the worst: The types of beers you drink after mowing the lawn (pilsners, IPAs) should be consumed soon after they leave the brewery. Leaving them in the bottle for years is not considered “aging” but simply “staling,” or as most would say, “going bad.” The vast majority of beer (and most wine, for that matter) falls into this fresh-and-fun category. It won’t improve with age, and you shouldn’t try.

The beers that will develop complexity with age are high in alcohol and hop bitterness; they’re also more “malt forward” in aroma and taste, and often high in residual sugar. The combination of dark, strong and alcoholic tends to work, so barley wines, imperial stouts and strong ales are good bets. (Lambics—Belgian sour beers brewed from wild cellar yeasts—are a notable exception to the dark, strong and alcoholic rule.)

If the beer is re-fermented in the bottle, it’s often packaged in a 750-milliliter bottle under a Champagne-style cork, as Brooklyn Brewery’s Local 1 is. With these beers, the aging process can impart the taste of dead yeast cells, which sounds macabre but is actually one of the flavors that defines vintage Champagne. Dead yeast actually tastes a bit like breakfast in Paris—i.e., toasted brioche and hazelnuts—and finding these flavors in a beer is more affordable than searching for them in a ’62 Dom Pérignon, the Champagne of choice for yacht christenings.

Once you’ve selected a few imperial stouts to add to the cellar (or any dark, cool place), the next question is the most difficult to answer: How long should you age them? The short answer is that there is no exact limit, no red X on the calendar beyond which your beer turns into a pumpkin and the wicked stepmother makes you drink Michelob Ultra. Unlike vintners, brewers can change the recipe of their beer on a whim, from year to year, which makes it difficult to have a baseline beer to measure ageability against. Because of this, it’s hard to know how long to wait until a beer is at its peak.

The only real way to figure out how long a beer will successfully age is to put a case in your cellar and taste it at intervals of six months or so. The expert consensus is that age-worthy bottles require three to five years of cellaring, with exceptions for certain beers, and it’s more important to think of a “drinking window” of a year or so rather than an exact date.

With wine, you learn very quickly that if you’re not drinking the old stuff, you’re missing out. The same is true for beer. So I’ve added a bottle of chocolate stout, a lambic and a few Belgian ales to my wine refrigerator, and there they will sit—this year, next year, the year after that, right next to the Barolo and Hermitage—until they’re ready to drink.

Charles Antin works in the fine and rare wine department at Christie’s in New York City.

Where to Find Aged Beers

Vintage Beer
Top restaurants have started to feature vintage beer.
Illustration © Lauren Tamaki.

Birch & Barley; Washington, DC

A modern bistro with a 500-bottle list that’s especially strong in vintage Italian. birchandbarley.com.

Ebenezer’s Pub; Lovell, ME

The cellar of aged barley wines and Belgians brings beer geeks to rural Maine. ebenezerspub.net.

Eleven Madison Park, New York City

A great place to try aged Brooklyn Brewery beers paired with some of NYC’s most refined food. elevenmadisonpark.com.

Monk’s Cafe, Philadelphia

An incredible list of aged lambics, with Belgian Cantillons dating back to the 1980s. monkscafe.com.

The Porter BEER BAR, Atlanta

This little Five Points pub is building a custom cellar for its 100-bottle collection. theporterbeerbar.com.

Published June 2012
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