Beer Is Getting More Like Wine. Is That Good or Bad?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 3 2013 5:45 AM

Royally Brewed

Would you spend thousands of dollars for a rare bottle of beer on eBay?

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One reason is that brewing has become more sophisticated—and, in some ways, more like winemaking. Some brewers have begun to age their beers like wine, which can, in the right conditions, make them more interesting and desirable, and thus more valuable. Often these beers are released in very low amounts, and it has become common to hear beer geeks talk about “verticals,” or multiple years’ worth of annual releases. Owing to supply-side variables (in annual hop harvests, for example), changes in the brewer’s formulation and aging regimens, and other factors, every release is unique.

You can taste the aging process in these beers. Most of the 100-point beers on both RateBeer and BeerAdvocate are reminiscent of the wines favored by revolutionary critic Robert Parker: intense and dark; higher in alcohol, tannins, and oak; and sometimes almost excruciatingly rich. Kirk Kelewae, service director of New York’s celebrated Eleven Madison Park, divides aged beers into two categories: barrel-aged and bottle-aged. Barrel-aged beers are matured in wooden casks, a process which imparts the flavor of the wood, adding notes ranging from vanilla to a chardonnay-like butteriness to the bracing acids of wild yeasts that flourish in wood. Most bottle-aged brews skip the oak aging, but are packaged with live yeast. “As the bottle continues to age, the yeast will go through a process called autolysis, the breakdown of yeast cells, which produces nutty and meaty flavors,” Kelewae says.

Brewers spend a great deal of time labeling, even hand-numbering, these releases, pouring them in hushed dining rooms with chef-paired dishes, and speaking in a new lexicon of beer terminology. Are some brewers merely aping the outrageous price hikes and marketing-motivated affectations of wine? Perhaps. But many beers are worthy of the cellar; as Kelewae says, “Aged beers can be a remarkable experience.” What’s more, a move toward extravagance isn’t so much a modern fad as a return to beer’s high-society past. (Catherine the Great of Russia, for instance, commissioned age-worthy, English-brewed imperial stout for her court.)

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But the right beer, aged properly, should be an enjoyable sensory experience to be savored with good friends, not a furtive, costly, clammy-handed acquisition. The larger question is, where will these beers of the new paradigm fit in the marketplace, and will new venues emerge for collectors who drink—not hoard—their best finds?

Change seems to be afoot. The craft beer revolution is now bringing beer drinkers a greater number of licensed retailers and bar owners who charge palatably lower prices than the black market offers. And recent years have seen the launch of legal beer-shipping businesses like RareBeerClub.com, BeerJobber.com, and France44.com, which carefully ship rare beers, wherever legal, for tolerable fees. These companies are forging deeper ties with brewers to get these great beers into the hands of true believers—and to get a share of the profits to the artisans themselves.  

But what the craft beer world may also need is a deeper supply of these delicious barrel- and bottle-aged brews. This is far easier said than done—a fact that stokes tension between perfectionist brewers like Hill, who say they aren’t interested in endlessly expanding, and a new generation of acquisitive, know-it-all fanboys, the hard core “beer geeks” who pine to fill their trunks with the most obscure, top-rated beers and who brag-blog every hoppy conquest. The catch-22: brewers who expand to meet this demand (at major capital expense) run the risk of alienating the same fans that once eagerly lined up in the pre-dawn hours. There’s nothing so bitter in the new craft beer marketplace as the taint of selling out.

Correction, Jan. 3, 2013: This article originally stated that Three Floyds Brewing is Muncie, Ind. It is in Munster, Ind. (Return.)

Christian DeBenedetti (@AleTrail) is editor-in-chief of Weekly Pint, a biweekly e-newsletter on craft beer, and author of The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover's Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation, which won the gold medal for guidebooks in the 2012 Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Awards.

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