BrokeAss Brew: Old Beers on a Winter’s Eve
Hard times have gripped the city. I have not been spared, and tonight, as desperation and cold overwhelm me, I have begun to disassemble my furniture for firewood. I kneel to stoke the flames, then pace across my floor to keep warm. Like many miserables struck down by poverty, I can scarcely afford beer – least of all the good stuff from our local craft breweries – but I have some tricks up my sleeve. Actually, they dwell in my cellar – and have been for years: beers brewed during the Clinton administration.
Old beers are not generally available in markets – even specialty beer shops – and the best way to get possession of aged specimens is to buy them fresh for a couple of bucks, stash them away, and wait, as I have done. In a store, such antiquated 12-ounce specimens could run $10 or more – but I have outwitted the market. I meant to save them for my wedding day, but my willpower has withered with the economy – and, hell, most brides want Champagne, anyway. With little pomp and scant circumstance, I raid the cellar and crack open one of my oldest bottles. It is a 2000 Sinebrychoff Porter ($3.25 for 12 oz) from Finland. If a smoky fire of chairs and tables can’t keep me warm tonight, perhaps this baby can.
The color: Held to my withering gas lamp, the porter is impenetrably dark. Enough said. The smell: It’s a bit dirty and heavy on bitter coffee and chocolate. Another smell. Definitely some fig and prune – and more dirt. The taste: It’s a bit soy-saucy, yet rich, dark, fudge-like and just a bit sour. This relic is a time capsule, and I am proud to claim the honor of drinking a beer made before I had an email address. In the mouth the porter is creamy, with some burned caramel, but on the finish, I taste dirt. This brew, I decide, has lived and prospered – and peaked long ago.
The cold deepens as night wears on. Sleep is impossible, and the beer demons haunt me further. I beg for the strength to hold myself back – Lord, give me the will, the fortitude, the conviction! – but I am only a man and I do it: I storm into my cellar, seize a bottle, and take my corkscrew to a 1999 Harvey and Son Imperial Extra Double Stout ($4.99 for 12 oz.).
I let the beer breathe while I break another stool and feed the fire. That was the last of my furnishings – my books are next – so I sit on the cold floor and study this beer. Brewed in England and 9 percent ABV, it’s black as an eternity of midnights. It smells of licorice and a bit of vinegar. In the mouth, it’s lush and creamy. The taste is of strong licorice, brown sugar, dark coffee and a tad too much soy sauce, by my beer standards. Though the beer is a fine “experience beer,” I would not call it exceptional. The bubbles have mostly departed the stout, and it’s lonesomely still. Its floral hop essence has all but withered, and the beer tastes distinctly old. On my last sips I find deeper flavors of gum, jelly, rubber, steel, farm-fresh manure and Watsonville fertilizer. This is another beer that has passed its prime.
Ten years have passed like a breeze since its making, and I, like the beer, have come to no good, burning my belongings to last through the night. Now my tippler is empty and my fire withers to embers, and I crawl to bed. Two beers under, I should sleep deeply, and the beer demons have departed – for now.
But other temptations dwell in my cellar. One is our own city-made Speakeasy Old Godfather Barleywine ($2.99 for 12 oz.), which bears the passage of time with utmost grace – at least to two years of age. I recently tasted one such specimen beside a fresh one, and the elder was far superior. While the fresh beer bore bright and sparkling hop aromas and flavors, it was far simpler. The aged version was thick-bodied, more syrupy, toffee-like and brawny with a caramel essence. I can only wonder how long the beer can go before peaking. Time will be the judge of that.
A tip for those who seek the old stuff: Don’t try and be the epicurean connoisseur by “pairing” cheese, chocolate or some other cliché to these beers. Their very nature – old, rare, wonderful – calls for an untarnished palate, to say nothing of a palate clogged up with stinking cheese and goopy fudge.