They line the walls of many pubs, alehouses, tap rooms, any place that caters to craft beer fans: old, encrusted bottles from fabled breweries, bottles that once contained the characteristic flavor of a time long gone. Most of the time, such bottles merely collect dust and become part of the ambience of a bar or pub. As part of clutter on a shelf, they lose the individual identity they might have had as products of specific breweries. They become collectively a symbol of brewing’s past, grounding the pub’s existence in the present with a reminder that previous generations have come to such places to enjoy camaraderie and drink.
Yet, occasionally, a customer will single out one of the names printed on a faded label for special notice. Perhaps the bottle reminds the beholder of an earlier time, of different brands that made up the zeitgeist of beer drinkers in another generation―a particular label that was once immediately recognized as an icon. Even in those moments, however, the individual history of the bottle is lost. Why wasn’t the bottle ever thrown away to lie shattered in some dump through the years?
Empty bottles that have the power to evoke clear memories of a drinking experience are rare enough. Those bottles that transcend the generations beyond the possibility of any living people to remember a taste of the beer, even rarer.
Mugs Ale House in Brooklyn, New York, is like any number of establishments with old bottles among their decorations. Such places are reminders that the craftbrew end of the beer business appeals to the love of brewing more than it does to standardized, branded tastes. After a few minutes in a good taproom, the neophyte perceives that brewing history is dear to the drinkers of a higher class of beer.
Sometimes, an old bottle has a story to tell, a story that not only sheds some light on brewing history but also on the mystique of a beer made to have an appeal long after its brewer has gone from the world. The bottle needs only the help of someone who remembers the beer it contained to articulate its history. Until the end of last year, I had no idea that I was to be one of the chosen to serve that function for a lineup of empty bottles now sitting in a display case in Mugs.
Bill Coleman and Warren Becker, two dedicated seekers of memorable beer experiences, recently became struck with a passion for tracking down old bottles. As members of the homebrew club that meets regularly in Mugs, the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, they convinced pub owner Ed Berestecki to cordon off a section of his alehouse one afternoon for a tasting of brewing history. I was one of the writers Coleman invited to the tasting. He provided me and a few selected others the opportunity to breathe some life into what might eventually become a few forgotten, empty bottles.
In December, Coleman sent me an initial list of a little more than a dozen vintage beers that he and Becker planned to uncap―or uncork―at the tasting. A few bottles on his wish list had yet to be located. From a quick glance at the list, it was clear that this would not be the usual vintage beer tasting: It wasn’t a vertical set of vintages from a single brewery; it didn’t compile an unbroken span of years; it mixed brewing styles and defied easy classification.
The two oldest bottles on the list, which were still being shipped to Coleman at the time, contained ales brewed by Bass in 1902 and 1928. Those weren’t typos, he assured me in the message.
There are a mere handful of moments in a freelance writer’s existence when one is thankful for having made such a career decision. This was one of those, and it went straight to the top of the list of rewarding experiences.
The collection was remarkable. The only American beers were six bottles from the Ballantine brewery in Newark containing beer brewed in the 1930s and 1940s, though some were actually bottled more than a decade after they were brewed. A bottle of Okocimsky Porter from Poland had been around since the 1960s, though clearly not labeled as a vintage beer and not intended to age so long. The same was true of an Oyster Stout from Castletown Brewery on the Isle of Man, dated approximately to the ’60s.
A Guinness Foreign Stout, on the other hand, could be dated to its bottling in May 1938. John Courage 50th Anniversary Ale, brewed in 1952, and the legendary first vintage of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, 1968, joined the elders from Bass, Prince’s Ale, from 1929 and King’s Ale, which was brewed in 1902 but bottled at least three years later after having aged in wood.
The date for the tasting was set for February 10, 2001, when the oldest beer would be near enough the century mark. Coleman and Becker managed to obtain some beers to represent most of the decades of the 20th century. A few ground rules were set, including a prohibition on asking what it cost to obtain the bottles, though the tales of how each one was located and eventually procured proved enlightening.
Attending the tasting with the two hosts and Berestecki, were Jim Anderson, the publisher of Beer Philadelphia newsletter and website; Tom Baker, head brewer of Heavyweight Brewing in Ocean Township, NJ, and me.
It made sense to taste the set of American beers first. The name Ballantine & Sons evokes an immediate image of what American beer once was. One bottle of Pale Ale and another labeled IPA weren’t impressive, but interesting. The other four were the Burton Ale, brewed only on two occasions, so far as all obtainable records indicate―on May 12 in 1934 and 1946. The four bottles, two from each year, had been bottled as needed for special occasions, when the brewery would present them to individual citizens for various ceremonial and symbolic purposes. One of them was inscribed to baseball legend, Casey Stengel, hence the official title of the event, the Casey Stengel Memorial Vintage Tasting.
The beers had surprisingly little note of any oxidation, though the bottles were capped with cork-lined crown caps. Few were attractive to the palate, but the most drinkable, actually quite palatable, one was from the Casey Stengel bottle. It had subtlety of flavors, and the hops were still lively. Hints of pear and apricot floated across the palate and finished with a definite twinge of bitterness. An auspicious beginning to a once-in-a-lifetime tasting.
Found on the Net
As Coleman and Becker revealed during the tasting, most of their collecting work was done on eBay.com by locating private individuals who happened to have old, capped bottles. Clearly, the drive to collect was responsible for the luck these two had in locating so many ancient bottles. Undoubtedly, many of the sellers posting messages on the website were interested only in the possible value of the bottles as collectables. An old bottle can be a thing of beauty to behold in itself, but it is the precious cargo the vessel contains that sparks the imagination of a dedicated beer fanatic. The uncertain provenance of the bottles, perhaps stored in attics or in boxes of junk, was of some concern.
A few of the older British ales, however, had come through other channels, the breweriana collecting clubs of England that have traded prized―and mostly full―bottles of legendary and commemorative beers over the years. Even some of the bottles that had seen the best care in handling showed the ravages of time.
Tastes of the Century
Among the pleasant taste experiences was the oyster stout, which had a silky texture and chocolaty finish and a light brininess from actual oysters used in the brew kettle. The old Guinness Foreign Stout conveyed chocolate notes in a smooth, fluid base and had a sharp acidity that was a refreshing counterbalance to an earthy finish. The legendary Hardy’s still showed its strength after a third of a century, its malt character still weighty and satisfying.
The old bottles of Bass, however, upstaged their younger cousins. Both were packaged with corks and wax sealed. The beers were clearly made to attain a higher order of life with age. Prince’s Ale was brewed on an occasion when Edward VIII, Prince of Wales, visited the brewery in Burton-on-Trent in 1929. King’s Ale was brewed when his father, Edward VII, visited in 1902.
Each of these beers had a royal hand opening the hot water spigot to start the mash. Both had matured well in the bottle, but the taste of the eldest was inspiring. The aromas of plums and stewed fruit were heady, and the treacly flavor mixed with leathery tones led into some earthy notes. The lightly gritty charcoal texture carried a hint of aged cheese, while the dried fruit and chocolate on the finish kept the identity of the beer from slipping into that of a vintage port.
It was the tasting of a century, in more ways than one―an event full of tastes and aromas that will stay etched in memory. All of us at the tasting owe a debt of deep gratitude to Coleman and Becker for being so driven to create an outstanding beer experience.
Berestecki, for his part, has enshrined all the bottles in a display case for his customers’ wonderment. But the spirit of these bottles seems somehow vanished. Their identities are now altered from what they appeared to be when they were full, when they were more the promise of the beer than actual beer in a glass.
There is, finally, another whole group of nameless collectors to thank for taking care of those unopened bottles for so long. Thanks to them, the beers lived on past many generations, perhaps to inspire more brewers to make a few beers for posterity.
William Loob is a freelance writer for the beer industry and science and technology issues.