By Beer by James ‘Dr. Fermento’ Roberts
I love vintage beers. I have a big collection of them. Most serious drinkers know that certain beers not only have extended shelf lives, but actually improve with time — up to a certain point.
I started my collection a long time ago. In fact, I started it long before I knew the value of aged beers or how to take care of them properly. It was 1978 and I’d enlisted in the military. In a number of months, I was going to be sent off to the top of Maine where good beer was unheard of. I wanted to bring along some bottles of Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale to enjoy on a special occasion.
Foghorn – or any of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company’s beers – wasn’t available on the east coast back then; such a beer was a true rarity, and was almost as unknown in California except in the areas surrounding the brewery. It was a very special beer to me.
Although special occasions presented themselves, I held the beers. I kept them refrigerated. My military travels took me far and wide to different bases and ultimately to Alaska, but every time I made a move, I hand-carried my fermented gems with me as if they were family heirlooms, bubble wrapped and insulated in a small cooler. Hotel stays would find me putting them in the refrigerator overnight and repacking them for the next day’s travels.
I managed to keep these beers until 1998. I was retiring from the military and some of my beer drinking friends threw a big bash for me up at Dave Snow’s house, the originator of Anchorage’s Arctic Brewing Supply. I decided to open and enjoy one of these beers as part of that occasion.
Once I settled down in Alaska in 1979, I’d rathole beers I was fond of, and not necessarily those that aged well. Most beers have a short shelf life and are designed to be consumed right away. I didn’t know that and just saved stuff I liked, but I did know that heat and light are beers’ worst enemies, so I did have the foresight to start stashing the stuff in a back crawl space in the basement where the temperature is a pretty consistent 59 degrees or so.
Once I learned about properly storing beers for aging, I came to grip with my ignorance and now have this gnawing realization that at least some of the over 1,500 bottles of beer under my house are going bad underneath me as I go about my business and keep bringing in new beers. Starting last year, I made a concerted effort to 1) not just keep throwing more collectable beer in my crawl space, and 2) to drink through the beers that are dying a slow, untimely sad and lonely death due to my inattentiveness and laziness.
So far, drinking through them has been an amazing journey. The thing that strikes me the most is that I found out that I have a profound love for Alaskan Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter because I have more of that beer than any other. It seems like I had this affinity to grab a case of it or more every year it came out after I started paying attention to it and in addition to it being an incredible beer at face and palate value, this stuff’s got some true staying power.
I learned a lot from Alaskan Brewing Company’s Andy Kline – the company’s marketing manager – when I called to ask about some of the beers in my collection.
“With the smoked porter, our library goes back to 1993,” says Kline of this style of beer that the brewery started producing in 1988, but didn’t bottle during the first couple of years.
Alaskan’s Smoked Porter is legendary. It’s the most award-winning beer in the history of the prestigious Great American Beer Festival (GABF). But making it, then learning it could be laid down was a learning process for Alaskan, just like me.
“We don’t have the first few years in our library because Geoff Larson, the founder, didn’t know it could be aged. People didn’t realize that. He was at GABF back in the early years talking with some other heritage brewery founders. The legendary beer guru, Michael Jackson, was in the room and asked if Alaskan thought about laying any of this stuff down. It had never been considered before,” says Kline.
My conversation with Kline inspired me to climb into my cobweb covered cave under the house with a headlamp and paw around and see what I had.
The oldest I have are a couple of bottles of 1994 and 1995 vintages. From there my collection skips ahead from 1996 through 2003, then on up through 2009 with a couple of gaps. I know I have more; I quit cataloging my beers somewhere along the line and just started new collectables in on top of the others. I’m still digging.
Having more than one of many of the vintages – some of which need to be consumed immediately — is daunting. I’m trying to drink one Alaskan Smoked Porter a day until my collection of them is manageable once again.
I took some advice from Kline. “The thing that happens with smoked porter is that it has an undulating wave of smoke characteristic as it ages,” he says. “The smoke intensity goes up and down with the years. The smoke starts off high, or intense, for the first five years, and it drops when the beer gets into the 10-15 year range, then the smoke character comes up again as the dominant flavor again.”
I jotted down some notes to explore through my vintages of this incredible beer and see if my palate could discern what he was telling me. “The biggest detriment with the older ones is that the body starts falling away and the beers get noticeably thinner,” says Kline. This is easy for me to sense in my beers in that age range. Still, I haven’t encountered a bad beer in the bunch.
I have some other Alaskan Brewing fermented collectables. Many of my aficionado friends have sizable collections as well. Kline talked about some of these. “The ones that do amazingly well are our birch bocks. Our Baltic Porters are incredibly well aging beers. The 2008, 2009 and 2012 are superb. Our Barley Wines do pretty good too; the last time we bottled barley wine was back in 2013. I think the barley wines peak at four or five years, so if you have those or older, drink through them,” he says.
So far, I’m finding great favor in my 2008 and 2013 Alaskan Smoked Porters, but every one I drink is an epic journey – a reward to my existence and a tribute to one of America’s pioneering heritage breweries. I’m saving my oldest for last, but then again, I may not ever drink them. Even though they’ve probably already faded from goodness, I consider them collector’s items. I still have a bottle of 1978 Old Foghorn I’ll never drink. I hope my grandkids enjoy it someday after I’m long gone.
The other day I was at the liquor store and saw some 2017 Alaskan Smoked Porter. “Nope,” I said to myself when I considered picking them up for my cellar, and wandered off to look at other beers. By the time I walked out of the store, I had six of the smoked porters in my take. Some things will never change. I guess I’ll have to make some room in my cellar again and make my grandkids even happier when I’m gone.