A Paean to Vertical Tasting

by Bob Klein


February 17 - February 23, 2000

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I have two refrigerators at home. The one in the kitchen is standard size and holds the usual comestibles associated with 21st-century living. You know, a couple of sticks of salted butter, two jars of Canadian honey mustard, pull-dated cottage cheese and my wife's generous supply of Negra Modelo.

The other fridge, is an upright Sanyo model about a third the size of the main one. It sits out back in the office, contentedly humming in its subdued, electric way and chilling 37 bottles of beer. All but three of these bottles, including two millennium beers, are more than three years old; some date to 1986.

Conventional wisdom insists that beer does not travel or even stay put well. And in general, I think that's true. So, what's with all those old bottles in my fridge? The fact is that some of these beers -- the ales, actually -- are made to be stored for longer periods of time. These luminaries of the beer world continue to ferment or age in the bottle. It's called bottle conditioning, meaning that the pile of little yeast guys at the bottom of the bottle -- alive and kicking in invisible, sub-nano-second cadences -- continue to do their thing until their last, besotted gasp (sometimes in the very maw of your digestive tract).

Fifteen of the bottles contain Thomas Hardy's Ale, a superior barley wine named for the Victorian British novelist and renowned for its robust, full-flavored character. Hardy's lyrical paean to the ale of his hometown of Dorchester, England is inscribed on the label of every vintage-dated bottle of his namesake ale: "It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset." This fortifying, cold-weather beverage has acquired a cult and connoisseur following of its own due to its rich, fruity taste reminiscent of oak-aged sherry and some well-placed hype. The $2.49 per-bottle price of the original 1968 run has risen dramatically, on occasion fetching upwards of $1,000 for the 6.33 ounces of ingredients. Fans, like me, have started collecting the stuff in anticipation both of a potentially more mellow brew in a few years as well as sort of an alcohol-based but less volatile version of soybean or pork belly futures.

Other beers doing their time in the Sanyo include 12 bottles dating from 1986 of J.W. Lees Harvest Ale (11.5 percent alcohol by volume) and two bottles, 1996 and 1997, of Swiss-brewed Samichlaus Bier. Samichlaus (literally, the Swiss version of Santa Claus) once held the record for the strongest beer in the world with a mind-boggling 14 percent alcohol content. Alas, the last batch was brewed in 1998. I found it to be much too alcoholic and syrupy when I first tasted an early incarnation nearly ten years ago, so my anticipation for the grand opening of the '96 and '97 versions is understandably somewhat tempered. I'll keep you posted.

When the time comes, I plan to invite a few worthy friends over, reach into the Sanyo and commence a tasting of each brand of beer in chronological order. That's called a vertical tasting, and it offers the drinker a rare opportunity to compare the effects of the aging process in a controlled succession of sips and tastes. Neat, huh?

Brewing expert Ray McNeill of Vermont swears that this notion of ale improving over time is a crock. After participating in a vertical tasting of Thomas Hardy ales, he found the most recent vintages to be the best by far. "The ones over five years old were terrible," he reported. So what's a dedicated ale fan to do? Throw out the Sanyo? Give up this presumptuous nonsense and break open the wife's stash of ready-to-drink-when-you-are Negra Modelo?

Perhaps the prudent posture is simply to heed what the Bard himself had to offer, which is to say, sit back and content yourself with what's in hand -- after it's been carefully poured into the appropriate glass, of course. In short, take the pleasure where and when you can, and let the self-serving yeast fend for themselves.


Bob Klein is the author of The Beer Lover's Rating Guide. As of today, he has tasted and rated 3,269 beers, an increase of 19 since his last appearance in this space.


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