Fine Living

And one for the cellar

Crafting complex flavours in limited-run bottles, an innovative generation of brewers are proving that beer can be as fine as wine – and get better with age. Glynn Davis reports on the growth of collectable beers.

April 20 2011
Glynn Davis

Unlike its more workaday counterparts this beer has no foamy head, just a dark brown reddish body that gives off an aroma of light smoke, dark fruit and sherry. The flavours combine sweet caramel with hints of coffee and chocolate along with a saltiness that culminates with bitter notes and a slight hop characteristic that reminds the drinker that this is a beer – albeit one that has been aged for nearly 20 years.

This is Thomas Hardy’s Ale, vintage 1982, a near-legendary 12 per cent beer that was brewed in Dorchester until 1999 and is believed to improve as it matures. Choosing between it and a St Julien Bordeaux to enjoy alongside dinner, or selecting a Westvleteren 12 from the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Belgium or a Château Margaux 2002 is the sort of decision made by Thomas Marshall, a shipping administrator, who appreciates both fine wines and equally fine beer.

Although he is still something of a rarity, Marshall is being joined by a steadily growing number of discerning drinkers who are recognising that certain higher-strength beers from better-quality brewers can be kept in cellars and potentially improved with age, just like wine – a process that creates a particularly tasty and complex drink.

“Beers can become very different in 10, or even 20 years,” says Marshall, “with more port- and sherry-like qualities as the hop bitterness is gradually lost. These are a world away from the fresh cask beers that people are used to. There are so many styles of beer that can be appreciated by people who enjoy quality crafted products. Wine drinkers shouldn’t be blinkered from the many varieties and characteristics of beer – from Russian imperial stouts to Belgian-style Quads – just as staunch beer drinkers shouldn’t overlook wine.”

At present, most vintage beers are priced modestly compared with their vinous counterparts. Marshall suggests that the Thomas Hardy 1982 vintage, for instance, can still be picked up for a very modest €20 in Brussels, despite its “very limited stocks”, and the Westvleteren 12 is a veritable bargain, at around €10, when you consider its pedigree.

This world-renowned beer comes from the smallest of the Belgian Trappist breweries and is sold only to individual customers exclusively from the abbey store (and only after having made a phone-call reservation, of which only one can be placed per month). When opened, it gives off dark caramel malts, preparing the drinker for a multilayered combination of flavours as sweet caramel, raisins and over-ripened figs are packed into a silky-smooth feeling in the mouth that ends with a subtle bitterness.

Such world-class beers may not be undervalued for much longer, however, as some of the UK’s more innovative brewers are starting to produce limited-run beers in numbered bottles. These are gradually increasing in value as they become sought after by a growing number of beer aficionados.

“Craft beer” maker BrewDog, based at Fraserburgh in Scotland, is at the vanguard of this trend, with its Abstrakt range (£9.99 for 375ml) produced using unusual combinations of ingredients and limited to around 3,000 bottles per brew. Examples include Abstrakt AB:03, an “Imperial ale aged over two years in whisky casks with strawberries and raspberries”, and Abstrakt AB:04, an “Imperial stout brewed with coffee, cacao and chilli”. Such beers sell out very quickly to connoisseurs who are encouraged to lay down the bottles for a couple of years to allow their rich contents to mature.

James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog with Martin Dickie, says the products are lovingly and labour-intensively produced: “Only the highest-quality ingredients are used, with locally picked strawberries and raspberries [in AB:03], and they are packaged in small champagne bottles with all the labelling done by hand.”

Another important factor in a beer’s collectability is the seal of approval from websites and forums such as RateBeer.com. The site has become a global authority on the subject and the brewing industry is taking an increasing interest in its results. Operating an egalitarian, consumer-driven judgment system (which differs greatly to that of the wine world, where the opinions of individual critics dictate perceptions of quality and, ultimately, collectability), at the site’s core is a scoring structure that marks beers out of 100. BrewDog’s Abstrakt AB:03, for example, scores a RateBeer 87 overall, whereas the AB:04 variant notches up a particularly impressive 100.

BrewDog has made a name for itself as a producer of unusual, experimental beers, and is pushing the boundaries of both taste and presentation. Last August, the brewery gained notoriety in the beer and media worlds when, with more than a hint of Damien Hirst-like shock tactics, it released its End of History beer. Its name derived from the work of philosopher Francis Fukuyama (and marked the end of BrewDog’s research into how high in alcohol it could brew a beer), but it wasn’t the ABV of 55 per cent that caused a stir, rather that its run of only 11 “bottles” were taxidermist-treated dead stoats and squirrels. The bottles commanded prices of between £500 and £700, but by all accounts the taste let it down and it has been described by one RateBeer member as a combination of “beer and moonshine that burns like a shot”.

Although End of History was too brutish, it is generally agreed that alcohol levels need to be at least 8 per cent for beer to benefit from cellaring; only then does the combination of ingredients have a positive impact on the taste characteristics over time, while the higher alcohol content acts as a natural preservative.

Restaurants in the US have been leading the way in recognising the growing market for vintage and limited-run beers. Dining at Michelin-starred venues such as New York’s Gramercy Tavern can be a real experience for beer aficionados as it has a “Vintage Beer & Cider” list that includes UK beers such as George Gale Prize Old Ale 1999, which sells at $18, and JW Lees Harvest Ale 2005, priced at $16, sitting alongside other collectable limited-run vintages from around the world.

In the UK, venues such as Bar Boulud and the Cask Pub and Kitchen, both in central London, have picked up on the trend. The beer list at the latter includes collectable brews such as BrewDog’s Sink the Bismarck (£60 for 330ml) and Tactical Nuclear Penguin (£45 for 330ml), as well as Angel’s Share from US-based Lost Abbey Brewery (£21.95 for 500ml). Among the best-regarded shops for stocking a wide variety of high-quality beers is Realale.com, which sells online and has an outlet in Twickenham offering difficult-to-find bottles such as the 11.3 per cent ABV, cellar-worthy Belgian Trappist ale Rochefort 10 (£4.40 for 330ml). Similar gems can be found at Utobeer in London’s Borough Market, BeerRitz in Leeds and online retailer Beermerchants.com.

Alastair Hook, founder, director and brewmaster at Meantime Brewing Company, has been producing high-quality beers in London for 10 years. In December 2010, Meantime launched its College Beer Club to a maximum of 500 beer aficionados (and there are still a few spots to be filled) who each receive two bottles per month of different exclusive beers at a cost of £350 per year. “As well as being a sensory experience,” explains Hook, “through the tasting notes we provide for each beer, we hope to raise interest in our industrial heritage.” Indeed, some of the club beers will hark back to the time when London was the centre of global brewing. For Hook, this involves delving into old brewery records and replicating long-lost beers from old recipes, as well as using old brewing methods such as ageing beers in whisky or wine casks before bottling.

But historic accuracy won’t be compromising the end result: “We’re ultimately a taste and flavour company, and we want our beers to provoke strong reactions,” says Hook. The club launched with an Imperial Russian Stout that spent 10 months in an old rum barrel, while the latest shipment is a long-aged Belgian-style Abbey beer. They arrive in pleasing-to-the-eye 750ml vessels with champagne corks and caging. A key point of interest for collectors will be the limited runs, with approximately 1,000 bottles brewed for each of the planned beers. This conveniently provides the opportunity for members to drink one and cellar one – a sure-fire way to begin building a collection of innovative, highly crafted beers.

John Keeling, brewmaster at London-based Fuller, Smith & Turner, has been producing the equally collectable series of Fuller’s Vintage Ales (2009 Vintage, £5.10 for 500ml) since 1997. He admits that the older bottles are now difficult to find, with the 1997 and 1998 no longer available and the 2003 (£6.50 for 500ml) in short supply – only available at the brewery’s shop in Chiswick, west London.

Keeling is a firm believer that the production of beers for cellaring is the next big trend in the UK, especially from smaller craft brewers. This marks a potential return to the glory days of British brewing, when older beers were more prized and commanded higher prices than their fresh counterparts.

“Ageing beer adds lots of interest for brewers,” he says, “as it represents the next area for them to explore.” And as brewers continue to experiment with ageing a brew before it has even been bottled, the results will no doubt be just as interesting to consumers and, increasingly, collectors. Indeed, given the raised profile of many of the smaller breweries, alongside a wider move towards supporting smaller, independent goods producers, the number of drinkers building beer cellars alongside their wine collection could soon be on the increase. And if so, more people might be faced with the same difficult, but delightful, decision Thomas Marshall faces each evening over dinner: red, white or vintage beer?

See also

Beers