I used to think that "I can resist everything but temptation" was one of Oscar Wilde's wittiest quotes. In a sense it was, but Wilde himself didn't say the words - he put them into the mouth of Lord Darlington in his play Lady Windermere's Fan.
I've been spending a tad too much on beer just lately because there have been some very special and interesting releases in the past few months, so there I was this morning on my weekly shopping trip to the supermarket, intent on limiting my beer purchases to a six-pack or two of something good but relatively ordinary; something for opening and knocking back after a day's graft behind the bar. Nothing barrel-aged, or brewed with exotic ingredients, or resurrected from shards of pottery discovered at an archaeological dig, or needing anything other than a crown cork opener to get into the bottle. No, nothing like that at all. Something simple, sessionable and tasty such as Independence Pale Ale or Real Ale Brewhouse Brown. As it turned out I discarded the local brews in favour of some Paulaner Oktoberfest because it was on sale, so imagine my surprise when I got home and found that as well as the Paulaner I also had in my bag one bottle each of Dogfish Head Theobroma, Jester King Boxer's Revenge and the new Boulevard/Pretty Things collaboration, Stingo.
Okay, the Theobroma I put down to professional requirements. Whenever we put on a new Badass Draft or Badass Bottle at Lamar I have to write a cheat sheet for the servers so they can be knowledgeable and informative about what they're selling. It includes some basic factual info about the beer - brewery, style, ABV, serving size and price - as well as a brief outline of the style characteristics, any relevant promotional or ingredients info from the brewery and, of course, tasting notes. For the tasting notes, I could go to places like Beer Advocate and RateBeer, read a couple of pages of reviews for that particular beer and condense some of them down, and indeed, sometimes I have to do that if it's a beer I haven't been able to taste before tapping the keg or opening the case, but it's always going to be much more accurate (and fun) if I can drink the beer myself as I'm writing the notes. We have a case of Theobroma that's going to be the next Badass Bottle at Lamar, so that's my excuse for this morning's DFH purchase.
The Boxer's Revenge... well, that's a bit like a number 84 bus. I generally prefer not to use quotes from famous people because there's usually too much smartarsery and not enough substance in them, but I've already used one of Oscar Wilde's and I'm about to use one of Dudley Moore's. Dud's from a part of London not far from where I grew up so we both know what he meant when he said "If you see an 84 you should jump on it, even if you don't need to, because you never know when you're going to see another one." Well, the same goes for Boxer's Revenge. It's one of Jester King's most sought after beers and for good reason - it's delicious. Sadly it's also in extremely short supply, at least until the good people at Jester King can increase the size of their barrel room, so when word got out recently that a new batch was hitting the shelves people like me started running around town trying to find it and letting other local beer geeks know where we saw it by posting the whereabouts on various interwebz forums. However, it's also $15 a bottle (750ml) so I haven't been able to afford as many as I wish I could, and I must admit that I was a little surprised to see it today, bearing in mind the feeding frenzy that's been going on. Taking Dud's advice I decided to grab one anyway and hang the expense.
The last in this trio of bottles is something that, to me at least, is irresistible, and for two main reasons. Firstly it's one of Boulevard's Smokestack series which have excited me since my first bottle of Two Jokers Double-Wit, and each of the Smokestacks I've tried since then have been seriously good, including (but not limited to) Bourbon Barrel Quad, Chocolate Ale, Dark Truth Stout, Rye-on-Rye and Seeyoulater Doppelbock. I'm very happy to live in a state that Boulevard distributes to.
The second reason I picked it up is the style - Stingo. You might not have heard of it before, and I'd barely heard of it myself until Sam Smith's made one recently - a limited release they only brew once a year and age for 12 months before sending it out into the world. It's such an obscure style, in fact, that you won't find Stingo in either the BJCP Style Guidelines or the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines, nor is it classified as a reviewable style on Beer Advocate or RateBeer. It falls under that nebulous and vague label 'English Strong Ale', in much the same way that Arrogant Bastard and Sam Adams Utopias - two very different beers - are somehow both listed as 'American Strong Ale'.
Although we have Michael Jackson to thank for the way that beer styles are categorised nowadays, any kind of filing system, database, call it what you will, can start to get over-complicated after a time, particularly if new categories (beer styles) are being devised on a regular basis, and especially if the new styles are either crossovers (black IPA) or are so similar to existing categories that there's almost no difference.
For instance: Burton ale, old ale and English barley wine. Some people say that the differences between them are so small they could almost be the same beer. Just like Stingo, they're malt-forward, relatively sweet, relatively high in ABV, have a muted hop character (or none at all), are usually dark in colour and are all excellent candidates for ageing where they will darken even more, develop a little oxidation leading to some sherry-like characteristics, the dark fruit flavours (raisins, plums, figs) will intensify, and there might even be a little Brettanomyces in there to eat up the remaining sugars, thus drying the beer, and adding a little sourness. A case could easily be made to lump them (and any others like them) into one easy-to-digest category, but the pedants will point out that one is generally darker than the others while another always has slightly more hop character and a third is just a tiny bit sweeter, and to be honest, I don't mind the differentiations. As long as I know what it's going to taste like (thank you Beer Hunter) it matters not to me if one's called a Burton ale and another is a Stingo. I quite welcome it, in fact. It gives me an idea of the beer's story. Stingo, for instance, is considered a northern English speciality, and I daresay that with Sam Smith's revival of the beer it might even come to be thought of as a uniquely Yorkshire style - you know how these myths can perpetuate.
The beer historian in me finds these older, often forgotten styles fascinating, and especially the ones we've been talking about here because of their suitability for cellaring. Both my parents lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and that experience shaped their attitude to being careful with money and with food. Nothing was ever wasted and there was never more food purchased than could be used before it went off, so there was a high turnover in our pantry and in our fridge. The idea of keeping anything to improve its flavour was not on my radar. Then I started to learn that you could age certain things, such as cheese and wine, and it would make them more interesting (and more expensive), but that couldn't possibly apply to beer, could it?
Well, nowadays I know that it can, and in fact it's a big thing among high octane beer geeks who will turn their basement into a beer cellar or buy a dedicated cellaring fridge (often a chest freezer) and modify it with a thermostat controller to keep it at cellar temperature. You sometimes hear that a bottle of wine that's 100, 150, even 200 years old is up for auction and eventually fetches an astronomical price, but when asked about the contents, experts will often express an opinion that the wine is probably undrinkable. So, how about a 137-year-old bottle of beer? Well, apparently it tasted pretty good, as did a few other superannuated malt beverages at the same tasting.
I guess that as far as that kind of beer is concerned, most of us are in the 99% and will never come within a country mile of anything as rarefied and positively stratospheric as a bottle of ale from the 19th century. To taste something like that you have to be one of The Few, or have had an ancestor with some very forward-looking attitudes and the money (and the property) to lay down a beer cellar the way that the people whose family have lived in the same French château for generations have done with wine. In times past it wasn't unheard of for the Lord of the Manor to have a batch of beer brewed when a child was born and to store it until the child achieved their majority at the age of 21.
If you have the necessary cash and storage space, and if you're thinking about leaving a legacy of beer for future generations, now is as good a time as any to start your cellar.