I've always regarded beer as a pretty democratic drink. It's cheap, appealing and widely available. Its biggest fans tend to be the sort of simple, straight-shooting lugs who marry implausibly tolerant women and make a lovable mess of things every half hour or so: think Homer Simpson or Norm from "Cheers" or George W. Bush. It is acceptable in certain circles to chug it, "shotgun" it or siphon it into oneself through a long funnel; the same cannot be said, sadly, for wine or piña coladas. It is utterly at home in the restaurant, the bar, the stadium, the fraternity house and the 7-Eleven parking lot. It is an equal-opportunity inebriator. It is the U.S.A. of alcohol.
Which is why it was strange to find myself at Gramercy Tavern in New York on a recent evening ordering an 11-ounce bottle of beer—for $23. But, then again, Thomas Hardy's Ale is no ordinary brewski. Especially when it's been sitting in the same bottle since 1992.
In the age of "born on" dates, a 15-year-old ale will likely strike most boozers as, well, past its prime. But vintage beer is not most booze. For centuries, European enthusiasts have quietly "laid down" bottles of full-bodied, alcohol-rich stouts, barley wines, porters, strong ales and ciders to mature in the cool of their cellars. The practice spread to the States during the craft-brewing boom of the 1980s and '90s, and over the last decade a handful of brewpubs—including the Map Room in Chicago, the Brickskeller in Washington, Father's Office in Santa Monica and the Toronado in San Francisco—have added aged beers to their rosters. (Sierra Nevada, Stone, Laguinitas and Anchor all produce age-worthy bottles, and Anheuser-Busch recently joined the ranks with a high-alcohol, vintage-dated beer called Brew Masters' Private Reserve.)
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."
For that to happen, vintage will have to prove its value. As a devoted (but novice) drinker who'd never heard of aging before Gramercy Tavern announced its menu, my first thought was "bottoms up." But then I remembered: this is beer we're talking about. You know, the stuff shirtless football fans drink from a helmet. Sure, boosters might do well to take a page from wine's playbook: according to the latest figures from the National Institutes of Health, alcohol consumption from beer (per capita) is down 6 percent since 1992, while "classier" vino is up 17 percent. But all hoity-toity aspirations aside, is any bottle of brew—particularly one that predates Dakota Fanning—really worth $23? Should we be encouraging these people?
Experts say yes—in theory. Sequestered for a year or more in a dark cellar at 40 to 55 degrees, a substantial beer—maybe yeasty, maybe malty and typically high on hops and/or alcohol (both preservatives)—will evolve, as it oxidizes, from brash to refined. The twang of alcohol will mellow. Most bitterness will fade. The malt and sugars will sweeten, and any yeast will stir up new flavors as it ferments. The result: a smooth, complex, aromatic beverage that amplifies the earthy, fruity accents of the original brew but still tastes unmistakably like beer. Sounds swell, right? Not necessarily. Brewers, unlike vintners, release their beverages when they're ready to drink, and aging is an inexact science. Given time, some bottles soar; others sour. With vintage beer, you always run the risk of liking the final draft less than the first.
There's only one way to know how age affects a particular brew: by tasting it. Fortunately for you, dear reader, I was willing to accept such a rough assignment, and spent a recent Tuesday night with my friend and fellow beerophile Zachary Sachs in the restaurant's Tavern Room polishing off six bottles of rare vintage suds. The things I do for NEWSWEEK. A sip-by-sip synopsis: of the evening:
Zach starts with a 2004 bottle of Hitachino Celebration Ale from Japan ($13). When asked for a description, our chummy blond waitress—let's call her Claire—tells us it "tastes like Christmas." Zach, who is Jewish, nods knowingly. I select the aforementioned 1992 Thomas Hardy's Ale ($23), a high-octane English concoction that Garry will later call "the most-sought after vintage beer in the world." Claire claims only that the Hardy's is "drinking beautifully," to which I respond with my best "but of course" smile; a bon vivant like myself would expect nothing less. A few minutes pass before she returns with our beers, decapping Zach's Hitachino and pouring my Hardy's into a snifter. "Watch out for sediment," she says. "If that's something that bothers you." I briefly consider chortling—who, me?—but instead cup the snifter, palm up, and swirl. I feel decadent. Zach sips his Hitachino first. "Delicious," he says. "I'm getting some citrus, some spices." I agree, citing coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla bean and orange peel—all of which are conveniently listed on the label.
On to the Hardy's. 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.
Our second round is somewhat less eventful. Zach's 1998 Sinebrychoff ($15), a porter from Finland, pours a translucent ebony, tastes of cafe mocha and, for its mildness, ranks at the bottom of the night's bottles. The Finns, we decide, are not to be trusted. My 2005 Schneider Aventinus ($13)—an eisbock modeled on the concentrated beer Bavarian brewers would extract from ice when their barrels froze in transit—is much more interesting. It's dark brown and full of yeast; the aroma is musty, with notes of banana and cloves. My first mouthful is smooth, malty, hopless and—oddly enough for brew named "ice lager" in German—tropical-tasting. By the time Claire returns to fetch our third and final round, I have identified the equatorial influence: grape bubblegum. I decide to keep this to myself.
We finish with a pair of Americans. Sadly, my notes from this last lap are largely illegible—perhaps because I ordered a 2003 Dogfish Head World Wide Stout ($21), which, at 23 percent alcohol by volume (enough for five bottles of Budweiser) is the strongest beer known to man. Alcohol content alone would make this smooth, roasty black brew worth its steep sticker price. But as an added bonus it's actually tasty, with a little boozy bite and a lot of raisins, figs, coffee and dark chocolate. I swill it recklessly. Meanwhile, Zach has already downed half of his 2001 Brooklyn Monster Ale ($18), a bottle-fermented barley wine that's caramelish, copper-colored and clouded with yeast. His verdict? "Second-favorite," he says. "Beats everything but the Hardy's."
Moments later, we catch Claire and ask for the check. "Gentlemen, the last two are on the house," she says. "It's great to have connoisseurs like you come in." Connoisseurs? Until tonight, Zach and I were vintage virgins. But that's the thing about aged beer: it elevates the essentially egalitarian experience of getting drunk, and, in so doing, manages (for a brief moment, at least) to make kings of us commoners. Which is a nice change of pace every once in awhile for the Norms of the world—and pretty darn democratic to boot. We stumble home shortly thereafter.