Vintage Beer: Wine Envy

Newsweek’s Andrew Romano sampled half a dozen vintage beers at NYC’s Gramercy Tavern, and documented his tasting experience in Beer By the Year. Vintage beers are dated and cellared for years, just like fine wines. We’ve covered beer makers attempting to move upscale in Beer Brewer Targets Wine Market and Beer Wants to be More Like Wine. According to Romano, the brewers are making some headway. He found some of the brews he sampled to be quite good, and the purveyors of high end beers are encouraged:

Still, only aficionados have paid much attention—which is where Gramercy Tavern comes in. A few months ago, the three-star Manhattan restaurant (the “most popular” in New York, according to the Zagat Survey) gave beer-by-the-year its big-league, fine-dining debut with a select 25-bottle list of vintage suds from Europe, Japan and North America. The response, says assistant beverage director Kevin Garry, has been “amazing”—and it could mean more mainstream acceptance to come. “Based on how our guests have reacted, I can totally see vintage beer catching on at other places,” says Garry, who pairs his bottles with cheeses and desserts. “I’d love to see it become the next cool thing in the fine-dining world.”

Romano sampled a 1992 Thomas Hardy’s Ale, which set him back $23 for an 11-oz bottle. Even allowing for restaurant markups, that’s an expensive beer. He liked it, though:

In the snifter, it’s a deep, viscous amber. The smell is strong: caramel and molasses, maybe a little apple. I take a swig, and, despite my utter ignorance, I’m immediately sold. Not to say that the stuff isn’t strange. For starters, it’s thick and syrupy. There’s no fizz. And it’s nearly as rich as sherry. But the flavors—nuts, oak, pear, butterscotch—are so nuanced, so balanced and so robust, for a fleeting moment I feel as if I’m sipping the sun-dappled autumn afternoons of my childhood. Only with slightly more alcohol.

He and his tasting partner also liked the 2003 Dogfish Head World Wide Stout and 2001 Brooklyn Monster Ale.

My guess is that while beers that cost over $20 a bottle aren’t much of a threat to Bud sales, these high end brews could spark interest in better mass-produced beers. In the same way that auto makers use sports cars and ultra-luxury models to establish their brand but sell mostly family cars, brewers can promote their vintage products to generate interest in their more affordable offerings.

If these high-end brews get people thinking about what the are tasting when they drink a beer, so much the better. I’m convinced that one reason bland American beers are successful is that their consumers drink them, often quickly, with little attention to the flavors. If I shell out $23 for a brew, I know that I’m certainly going to sip it appreciatively and pay enough attention to determine if I’ll order another one in the future.

We acknowledge Romano for his sacrifice in researching this article. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. 😉

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