Have you ever stumbled across a bottle of beer that has been forgotten for far too long? I’m not talking something that’s just a few years old, but a beer that was bottled when you were just a kid or possibly before you were born. Your first instinct might be to toss it in the bin, or if you’re the curious sort you might decant it into a glass and have a sip. If you’re obsessed with beers, and since you’re reading this article you may fall into this camp, you might want to take things a bit further. Maybe you would scour the internet to track down more beers that are decades past their best buy date, some from long shuttered breweries. Maybe you would organize a beer tasting and invite beer lovers from far and wide, including one of the most distinguished beer journalists on the planet, to sample these vintage beers. Perhaps you’re thinking the whole scenario sounds implausible, but that’s exactly what Brad Wight did, and through my friendship with Nick Smith of Steam Machine Brewing in Newton Aycliffe who hosted the event, I landed on the invite list.
When I received the invite I thought it sounded unusual, but then again England is a very old country so drinking ridiculously old beers might be a thing they do around here. After all nobody bats an eye at a pub that’s 200 years old in the UK. I’m curious by nature, and I never fail to have a great time when I drop by the Steam Machine taproom, so of course I accepted the invite immediately. As a bonus my good friend Mark Richards, director of operations at Land-Grant Brewing Co. back in the US, would be visiting at the time. It would be a great opportunity to show him my favorite Northeast brewery.
A few weeks prior to the event Nick showed me a stash of bottles of Whitbread’s Celebration Ale that had been acquired for the event. Not to be confused with the Sierra Nevada hoppy holiday beer of the same name (a historically important beer in its own right), Whitbread’s Celebration Ale is an 11.5% abv barleywine brewed in 1992 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the brewery. The style and age of the beer both seem within the bounds of what might be a pleasant drinking experience. However, when Mark and I walked in I was surprised to see 20+ vintage beers on the bar counter, most longer in the tooth than the sprightly 26-year-old Celebration Ale. A few questions started to run through my head. What’s the oldest beer I’ve tried? Why didn’t I eat dinner before arriving? Is the number for the poison control hotline programmed into my phone?
The other truly notable feature of the event was that Roger Protz, one of the most respected beer writers in the UK, had come up from St. Albans, near London, for the event. Roger has authored more than 20 books on beer, including 300 Beers to Try Before You Die, the World Guide to Beer, and most recently, IPA – A Legend in our Time (a must read for anyone who wants to get their facts straight about the history of this style). He has edited over 20 editions of CAMRAs Good Beer Guide and was the first recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the British Guild of Beer Writers back in 2003. His accolades go on and on but suffice to say he’s a big deal in the world of beer writing, and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend an evening with him. I’m happy to report that in person he is modest, knowledgeable, and very approachable. It was fascinating to hear his thoughts and perspectives on beer, both within the UK and globally. I can’t resist sharing a few snippets of stories he told us through the night.
After the event when we opened a bottle I had brought from a recent visit to Cantillon, Roger told us about visiting the brewery with a group of CAMRA members some years back. After drinking a glass of the world-famous lambic while waiting for the tour to start, everyone was offered a second glass to take with them as they toured the brewery. He told me it’s the only time he’s seen CAMRA members, famous for their frugality, turn down a glass of free beer en masse.
By the time we started there were a baker’s dozen adventurous beer enthusiasts assembled. For most rounds that meant each of us was limited to roughly a 1 oz pour. In most cases that turned out to be more than enough. Not surprisingly many of the beers that had been cellared for decades were brewed for special occasions. There were no less than five beers released in 1977 for Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. There were beers brewed for the head of each party in the 1997 parliamentary elections, and a beer brewed by Courage for Princess Anne’s wedding in 1973. We were only missing a beer brewed to commemorate England’s 1966 World Cup triumph.
There were so many beers to sample, and to be honest the company was far better than most of the beers, that my notes are a bit spotty. Roger has posted an account of the evening with detailed tasting notes on his website, and I would strongly encourage anyone with a keen interest in these beers to see Roger’s post. Nonetheless, I offer my notes, such as they are, to give a different perspective.
We started with a 1997 bottle of Worthington’s White Shield IPA, one of the iconic British IPAs from Burton-upon-Trent, a town closely associated with the style. I know my American readers will be scratching their head at the thought of aging a 5.6% abv IPA for 20 years, but this is a bottle conditioned beer and classic British IPAs are less about hop aroma than modern interpretations of the style, so why not. Unlike many of the beers that came later in the evening it was fairly dry, and according to those familiar with the fresh product had darkened considerably while aging. Not surprisingly most of the hop character had faded, but a combination of the British yeast and the effects of moderate oxidation made for a very fruity beer, think raisins and sultanas rather than citrus fruits, some comparisons to sherry were made. Not amazing in my opinion, but a promising beginning to the evening.
After a couple of rounds it became clear that a dump bucket was necessary. Most beers had at least a tinge of acetic sourness, and many were surprisingly sweet. I guess the yeast used for bottle conditioning gave up the ghost long ago, and without Brettanomyces to slowly chew through the sugars the sweetness of the big Barley Wines and Strong Ales was locked in place by the turn of the century. The Marston’s Sliver Crown IPA from 1977 tasted strongly of marzipan and was cloyingly sweet. The Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout from 1968, was challenging on many fronts. Many of the beers opened with nary a hiss of escaping CO2, but a Fuller’s ESB from the mid-1970s was if anything over carbonated. Obviously the seal on that bottle had been a good one, and perhaps not surprisingly the underlying flavor was not unpleasant.
Just about everyone stopped to pay attention when we got to the oldest beer of the evening. A strong ale brewed by the now defunct Vaux Brewery of Sunderland. Date stamping was not a thing in the first half of the 20th century and this beer was not brewed for a special event, so determining its exact age was at best an educated guess. The notes that Brad handed out simply said, pre-war. I assume he was referring to WWII, but after tasting it occurred to me that it might have been the War of 1812. Realizing this was a once in a lifetime experience, I approached my small pour of this venerable beer with care and took careful notes. The nose was a mix of funky phenolics wrapped in a blanket of sour acetic acid. The taste was a big punch of smoky, plasticy phenolics that conjured images of band aids roasted over an open fire. The finish left me with a taste that might best be described as wet basement in a bottle. A thoroughly unpleasant drinking experience that required a glass of the freshly brewed Steam Machine Garden Tart to restore my palate.
There were two bottles of Thomas Hardy Ale, a limited edition Barley Wine that is meant to be aged (up to 25 years according to their website). We started with a 30-year-old vintage from 1988. The dominant characteristic was a meaty flavor akin to soy sauce, that comes from glutamates released when the cell walls of the yeast give up the ghost. In culinary-speak you might say it had considerable umami character, but in a room full of Brits references to marmite and bovril were thrown around. The 2008 vintage, which was a mere 10-years-old, also had a distinct umami note, but retained some dark fruity esters and roasted malts that made for a somewhat more balanced drinking experience. Both were tinged with a bit of sourness.
I don’t want you to leave thinking that all beers we sampled were unpleasant. The Ind Coope Silver Jubilee Strong Ale from 1977 might have been the highlight of the evening. It was full of dark fruit flavors and rich molasses/treacle character, still boozy after all these years but not in harsh way. These elements, combined with a bit of spice (presumably from the yeast), made for something akin to a strong, dark Christmas Ale. The aforementioned 1992 Whitbread Celebration Ale was quite a pleasant drinking experience in a similar vein, a bit less spicy than the Ind Coope but with a richer malt base and a nice underlying port-wine fruitiness. There were three bottles of this vintage, so I went back for more multiple pours after the tasting finished, maybe downing a quarter-pint in all. The 1977 Watney’s Stingo (a Yorkshire version of a Barleywine) was also good enough that I could have enjoyed a snifter by the fireside on a cold evening.
What are the take home lessons from this experience? If you are going to age beer for decades be prepared that the end product might not be very pleasant. The exercise is more science experiment than path to culinary nirvana. On the other hand, I didn’t experience any unpleasant side effects, so no need to worry about a trip to emergency room if you decide to try this at home. Bottle conditioning is a must to have any chance of hitting a level of oxidation that leads to pleasant sherry/port fruitiness while stopping short of harsh smoky, medicinal phenolics. However, bottle conditioning also brings the risk of extensive yeast autolysis that can produce marmite/soy flavors that in moderation can add complexity, but can also overwhelm the beer if it goes too far as with the Thomas Hardy ales. Basically its Russian Roulette, but every once in a while you hit upon a winner.
The evening was a unique opportunity to mix with a fantastic group of British beer enthusiasts. A shout out to Nick for inviting a couple of Americans to join in the fun, and for providing a mid-evening feast of freshly baked bread and various cheeses. It came at a moment when it was sorely needed. Judging by the way the rest of the group ravenously descended upon the offering I’m not alone in that sentiment. Finally, a big thanks to Brad and Roger for sharing their stash of vintage beers, without them the entire event would not have been possible.