By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
For most of us, collecting beer simply means there’s a can or bottle in the back of our fridge we forgot about. Not the case, though, for the few dozen folks who lined up on a sunny September day outside the Portland Art Museum for a panel discussion on cult and collectible beers. Yep, a beer lecture, at an art museum — holy Manet!*
Held in a canopied space between two museum buildings, the “I’m in a Cult” drink and learn event was part of Feast Portland. A five-person panel did the educating and included three writers from the magazines Imbibe and Bon Appetit; Portland-based co-author of “Hop in The Saddle” Lucy Burningham; and Sarah Pederson, owner of Portland’s Saraveza Bottle Shop and Pasty Tavern.
Before the quintet pulled up their chairs and microphones, a squad of servers poured specially selected beers into wine glasses at each audience member’s seat. For our tasting pleasure:
To Øl Sur Citra, dry-hopped American wild ale (Denmark)
Crooked Stave Surette, wood-aged farmhouse ale (Colorado)
St. Bernardus Abt 12, quadrupel (Belgium)
Deschutes The Abyss, imperial stout aged in oak pinot noir barrels (Oregon)
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels (Illinois)
The richness of these beers had us licking our lips wanting more and asking the obvious question — why does anyone pass up drinking a beer so they can store it in a dark, cool place?
To answer that question, I head to North Portland’s Humboldt neighborhood, which is a cultural world away from the Portland Art Museum. There, art tends more toward graffiti, neon signs and music club flyers. I’m sitting at a table in Saraveza on North Killingsworth Street. Owner Sarah Pederson said, “the beer has to be good enough.” She continued to explain why people collect first and drink later: “People who really decide if it is going to be cultish or highly collectible are those people who are buying it. Those people — their value, the value of the beer is how they talk about it.” She said they are the ones who create the cult-building buzz.
Tyler Auton, a chef at Pasty Tavern, has a 200 bottle beer collection. “I tend to find the beer I like ages well and a lot of stuff I like is in such small quantities you really have to collect it to get it.” Auton began collecting when, at 21, he met the bartender of a Bellingham, Wash. tavern. “He was giving me tastes of these really limited beers and then invited me to a beer tasting where everyone brings two bottles and everyone shares things you can’t normally find.”
Beer is a social drink and, Pederson said, being social is how to start collecting. “Go get in line. Find a place that’s doing something special. They have a dock sale and go get in line. Talk to everybody who’s doing it. The other thing I would do is join a reserve society. Certain breweries have these reserve societies.”
The Bruery in California, as an example, releases limited-edition beers through their reserve club. De Garde in Tillamook is having a fourth-quarter release Nov. 21. Or you can get on the mailing list for a brewery like Block 15 in Corvallis. You can also build contacts online. For example, Auton managed to get his hands on a Founders Brewing Canadian Breakfast Stout by reaching out to others. “They used bourbon barrels that once held maple syrup. The first year they only made a thousand bottles. I traded a few things and got a first-year batch of it. It wasn’t that good but it was fun to connect with people.”
Once you collect, you have to store what you cherish. “I store them underneath my house,” Auton continued. “I have a system that is normally around 55 to 65 degrees. It is ideal. I think some beers, some sours, are less temperamental with aging because they have all that wild yeast in them. But something like imperial stout I’ll be careful with and, like, the higher the alcohol the more comfortable I am in letting it sit for a while.”
As Pederson peels a chart defining “vintage bottles” from the glass front of the Saraveza retro coolers, she explained what you should collect: “The collectible ones, historically, are the big malty ones. The big beers, the hop profile should be mainly used for preservative. The ones that have been collectible in the past are real malt-heavy barleywines, imperial stouts. That’s what everyone was looking for when they began barrel aging them. Over the past couple of years in America, this was always going on in Belgium, the sour beers have gotten bigger. Those are the other beers you can age and hold onto for a long time. The alcohol has to be high enough in it. The alcohol helps preserve it.”
You should also collect at least three bottles of these beers: one to drink now, one to drink in about a year and one to hold for, however long you want. The flavors will change. “They develop, they mature. They get more stone fruit, more caramel or the acid can mellow out. Some of the sour parts can mellow out,” Pederson assured me.
Recently as I considered buying bottles for long storage, I remembered asking Pederson about her favorite collectible. “That was Hair of the Dog Fred. The first batch. I saved it for 13 days.”
She has beers she’s kept longer, but will do the same with those that she did with the Fred; share with friends when she opens them.
*Edouard Manet completed the painting “A Good Glass of Beer” in 1873.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.