Why you should stop hanging on to that rare bottle and open it already.
For four years, a bottle of Russian River Batch 23 Damnation sat tucked away inside Grant Spilman’s cellar. The beer, a rare oak-aged tripel from 2009, was the kind of release beer geeks line up to consume. Spilman had parted with $11 at his local San Francisco beer shop for the bottle (a steep price in those days), brought it home, and then, well, waited.
“I was waiting for something special to occur, but still wondering if I was doing the right thing by letting it sit,” Spilman recalls. But what exactly does “something special” look like?
There’s a scene in 2004’s Sideways where Miles Raymond, a struggling novelist and wine snob played by Paul Giamatti, is asked when he plans to open his prized 1961 Cheval Blanc. His answer: “I don’t know. A special occasion. With the right person.” After finding his ex-wife married, pregnant and soul-crushingly happy, he finally drinks that bottle: alone in a depressed funk, inside a fast food joint, from a Styrofoam cup.
We all have a prized bottle maturing in the back of our fridge for a lofty occasion. But when will the moment come to drink it now?
One of the major driving forces behind cellaring is improving the flavor profile of a high-gravity beer by giving it some age; smoothing out rough edges, taming alcohol, allowing some aged leather or dark fruit notes to emerge. It’s not a niche practice: Cameron Stokes, who runs CellarHQ.com, an online database where users upload and track their bottle collections, says his traffic skyrocketed 200 percent from 2012 to 2013, and is still rising.
Interestingly, there are brewers who don’t want you to put their beer in your cellar; they want you to drink it now. Against the Grain’s Adam Watson isn’t shy about squelching cellaring enthusiasm, especially when it comes to his own big beers, like the 13%-ABV Bo & Luke, designed to mimic the profile of bourbon whiskey. His argument boils down to one convincing point:
“The product that you pop in five years isn’t the product that the brewer released—it’s what the brewer released, and then you did something to it,” he explains. “I don’t tell someone to paint watercolors on the Mona Lisa and then call it better.”
Watson does see some merit in experimenting with bottle-conditioned ales or those that still contain active yeast and bacteria, like Russian River’s Belgian-style sours. Still, even Russan River owner Vinnie Cilurzo warns against the common mistake of holding bottles too precious.
“There are collectors who hang on to their bottles too long,” he says. “I’d rather drink a cellared beer while it’s still climbing the mountain as opposed to when it’s coming down the other side.” His advice: Drink sooner rather than later.
But cellaring with hopes of improving flavor doesn’t entirely explain the reason bottles across the country are gathering dust. Psychology plays a devastatingly vital role in your inability to open a rare beer. Studies on intertemporal choice seem to indicate a carpe diem attitude toward reward: Economists and psychologists have shown humans place higher value on getting something today than, say, in a year’s time; that is, given the choice, you’d probably take $100 today over $100 a year from today.
Why do beer geeks not feel the same way when staring at a rare bottle? Dr. William Goldstein of the University of Chicago’s department of psychology believes it stems from a fear of “closing the account”—that is, when it’s gone, it’s gone. It seems the length in which we delay draining a bottle increasingly erodes our certainty of a special moment. So, maybe we’re headed for a Miles Raymond-esque breakdown after all? Or, maybe not—if we follow Spilman’s lead.
His longtime hesitancy to open that Batch 23 Damnation was two-pronged: He wanted to put some age on the bottle and find a worthy moment to close the account. The wait finally came to an end last New Year’s Eve: It wasn’t a lofty, life-changing event that convinced him to drink the beer. That year, he had turned 40 and, faced with the dawn of a new calendar, took stock of his life: “My wife and daughter are healthy, I’m healthy—life is good,” he thought. So he popped it open. Maybe it’s time you do, too. •
ANTI-AGING: Earlier this year, Arizona beer distributor Pitcher of Nectar experimented with the release of rare Cantillon lambics. To squelch the frenzy incited by past releases—when a few beer geeks gobbled up bottles as they hit shelves—owner Tony Piccini made a controversial call to limit the entire allotment to a few on-site tastings at beer bars. “I really wanted to reach more people than the hoarders,” reasons Piccini. “My intent was to approach local businesses and get people to actually visit these locations to try out this fantastic beer.” The experiment was mostly a success, but serious beer collectors were incensed that Piccini had snatched control of when and where Cantillon could be consumed. As high-profile beer releases intensify and cellaring spreads, some people in the industry are beginning to rethink how much control they should have over the way you imbibe their product—or, to put it another way, encourage drinkers to stop overthinking beer and just drink it right now.