Our 37th Session is hosted by The Ferm and Sir Ron’s theme is The Display Shelf: When to Drink the Good Stuff, a dilemma many of us face. We’ve all accumulated “numerous bottles of beers that [were] subsequently cellared and designated as ‘to be opened on a special occasion.’ [The] dilemma, however, is matching an occasion with opening a particular bottle in [the] collection.”
The Ferm continues to elucidate their topic:
Finding a drinking occasion that lives up to the reputation of the bottle and the story of its acquisition is not a dreadful struggle to have, but it is a struggle nonetheless. When my good friends are over and we have had a few other beverages, will we still be able to enjoy my cave aged Hennepin that I bought after my tour of the brewery and have cellared for ten years? Will I miss it like I miss that four year old Golden Monkey?
The topic is open ended and the rules of The Session are close to nil. You can use your post to be persuasive or therapeutic. You may choose to tell a story of a great bottle you once opened or boast of your own beer collection.
So that got me thinking about my own beer cellar. It’s not as grand as a lot of impressive ones I’ve visited or have heard about. It’s not in a goldmine, for example. It doesn’t have Celtic granite columns. It’s not a converted walk-in, sadly. It’s just part of my network of four refrigerators, three of which are devoted exclusively to beer. One of the refrigerators is used for everyday beers, the ones my wife is allowed to drink. I used to employ a system where I put sticker dots on the beers she wasn’t allowed to open, but she (and my friends and relatives) just ignored them. So now there’s a separate refrigerator in the hallway, just off the kitchen, that I keep stocked with beer for her and guests. It’s worked beautifully, and I suspect the reason is a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon where people aren’t tempted by what they can’t see.
But nestled coolly inside one of them (the other is partly the queue for beers I need to taste for work) are a number of gems, but nothing I’d consider overly spectacular. I’ve seen spectacular, I’ve been fortunate to taste a lot of spectacular stuff, but I’ve never set out to collect beers in any systematic way so what I’ve got aging is a mishmash of what people were kind enough to gift me and a few things I’ve stumbled across that were just too good to pass up. I’ve got magnums and 12-oz. bottles of Anchor Christmas Ale going back into the 1980s. Some Thomas Hardy from the same time period. A few strong beers, old ales, dubbels and tripels, things like that. Some waxed-top barleywines from several brewers, and the ubiquitous Samuel Adams Triple Bock that it seems everybody has a few bottles of, myself included.
But I suspect many of us have a least a few special beers we’ve been holding on to, and for me the more interesting question is when to open them. When is the right time to open the safe and let them flow freely? As the Ferm put it, the trick is “matching an occasion with opening a particular bottle in [the] collection.” Obvious choices are events like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and holidays. As the humorist Dave Barry expressed it, he will “drink beer to celebrate a major event such as the fall of communism or the fact that the refrigerator is still working.” But for some reason that rarely seems to work, and the bottles stack up. Literally.
I have a colleague who has a party to clear out his cellar — I think once a year. I’ve hosted a few “clearing out the garage of beer” events and they’ve been great fun. What it comes down to is that I don’t want to open a special bottle just for me. I want to share it. But I also want to share it with people who can and will appreciate how special it is. And while my wife has developed a great palate over the years, the rest of the family has largely not, so that makes holidays and family gatherings not the ideal occasion. There are some beers so cool, rare or otherwise special that you want to have as many people try them as you can. It’s that social aspect that make beer so worthwhile.
I keep trying to start a tasting club that would get together to taste beer once a month, but am continually stalled in trying to get the ball rolling for no better reason than I feel so busy all the time. The idea is to set aside the last Tuesday of every month and have a good number of brewers, other writers, and just people I know would appreciate trying different beers get together and open a few bottles, a mix of new samples and old gems. My plam is to have roughly 50 people on the list with the idea that if 6 or so show up any given month, we’ve got a good group. In that way, no one will feel any pressure to come every month, only if they’re free and have the desire to come. I think in that way, the garage wouldn’t get so clogged with beer to the point where I feel overwhelmed just trying to decide what to drink some days. And while I realize that’s not a problem for which I’ll be getting any genuine sympathy for having, it is a problem nonetheless.
But there is one beer I have that continues to vex me concerning when and where to open it. Actually, I have two bottles of this beer, which were given to me by a Costello Beverage distributor’s rep. in Las Vegas, when I was still the beer buyer at BevMo and we still had two stores in Nevada. The bottles in question are from the Whitbread Brewery, and though I can’t confirm the veracity of everything in their story, here’s what I was told.
After being loaded with her cargo, she dragged her anchor during a gale in the Kyle of Loch Alsh on 26 November 1940 and grounded in shallow water. While being unloaded there was a fire in the engine room, whereupon the harbour and towns nearby were evacuated, and she was towed well out into the loch and cast adrift in anticipation of an explosion.
A massive explosion on 27 November, which fortuitously didn’t set off any of the mines, blew her apart and she tipped over on her starboard side and sank in 20 metres of water with her port side visible at low tide.
In 1955 the Royal Navy took off the steel plating on her port side and removed the mines and 4000 anti-aircraft shells.
Today, she’s still a popular site for divers, even though the wreck is silty, “owing to its relative intactness and shallow location.”
But in 1993, some divers found something interesting that others had missed.
In 1993 eight divers visited the wreck of HMS Port Napier off the Isle of Skye, Scotland. The ship was a WWII mine layer which sank on its maiden voyage in 1940 when fire broke out in the engine room. The wreck lays in 24m of water. The divers found two crates of beer in the galley. They contained 48 bottles of Whitbread pale ale and the contents had been preserved by rubber-sealed screw-in bottle tops. The divers sampled some of the beer back on dry land and found it to be even better than new beer. “Foamy with a mature flavour” said one of the divers. They didn’t finish off the 48 bottles though. They saved a few of them for the Whitbread company.
So that part of the story I can more or less confirm. From here on out, it’s all uncorroborated, unless someone out there has more information. The Whitbread Brewery examined some of the bottles and managed to extract some still-living yeast from them, using it to brew some special beer. The bottles that I received were supposedly that beer, made with the 50+ year old yeast. If the yeast was found in 1993, then I don’t know exactly when Whitbread made the beer. They were still in business at least until 2000, when they sold out to what was then InterBrew (and now is InBev or Anhueser-Busch InBev) for £400 million. A few years later, in 2005, Whitbread (now a hotel chain, though they call it a “hospitality company”) even sold the original brewery building on Chiswick Street on London, where Samuel Whitbread founded his brewing empire in 1732. Today it’s an event center called, fittingly, the brewery.
This is one of the bottles. Note: the glass is perfectly smooth, what looks odd is just condensation as I’d just taken it from the refrigerator moments before taking this photo. Some of the bright red wax is starting to chip off just a little bit, but is otherwise in pretty good shape, all things considered.
I was given them around 1998 and was told to wait until the Millennium to open them, but to be honest I forgot about them that New Year’s Eve and then I never quite found another occasion that seemed worthy of opening one of them. So they’re roughly twelve years old now, and I’ve kept them properly chilled virtually the entire time (though I can’t vouch for the time before they were in my possession) brewed with yeast from a beer bottle that was under water since 1940, 70 years ago. I’ve heard of other people who’ve seen them, but I don’t know anyone else that has one, let alone two of them. I’m very curious what the beer tastes like, of course. I’d employ the above rule about “when surrounded by enough people who can and will appreciate trying it,” but somehow that doesn’t seem quite right. So when exactly should I open them? For what occasion? I’m stumped. What do you think?