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The anatomy of a vintage beer list

Dissecting Gramercy Tavern's vintage list.
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Nobody blinks at a wine menu with a 2009 cabernet, but a beer list with five-year-old brew? In a proper cellar, “old beer” transforms into liquid that’s smoother and more cohesive than it was out of the tank—and it’s priced on par with wine. Kevin Mahan, managing partner of Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, began stocking vintage beer in 2006, back when beer cellaring was virtually unheard of; today, his list is one of just a few expertly curated ones around the country. They’re rare pours (he aims to score two cases of Bourbon County releases from Goose Island, and just a sixer from far-flung brewers like Belgium’s Hanssens Artisanaal), and once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. Here, Mahan dissects his menu.

1. “It’s difficult to get a range of light to dark on a vintage list; it’s almost an after-dinner beer list. But this has darker notes and is still light on the palate.”

2. “The 750s are harder to sell; you have to find someone to get on the ride with you.”

3. “We age several barleywines, but this one’s special: At first, it can be a little sweet, but everything comes together with age.”

4. “This goes great with our chocolate desserts, particularly one in the tavern we call the Chocolate Bar.”

5. “At this point, there’s some significant bottle variation. I’ll open some tonight, and if the first two are good, we’ll keep it on the menu; if not, we’ll keep it in our back pocket to see if it improves with time.”

6. “It’s not something I’ll age forever. I expect it to mellow out. Hop-heads might say I’m killing this beer; I won’t argue that I’m changing what the customer will experience, but it’s an experiment.”

7. “We have the current version on our regular beer list, so this is one I like to serve side-by-side with a fresh bottle.”

8. “If we bought a beer three years ago, we sell it at the standard markup for what we bought it at three years ago. We roll in the price of storage as the cost of doing business; I don’t transfer that to the customer. I’m trying to attract people to this list.”

When good beer goes bad: Aging beer is equal parts art and science; it’s the cellarers’ best guess how long a beer should nap… and sometimes they guess wrong. If you can barely choke down your brew, the vintage might be past its prime. Mahan’s advice? Speak up. “If it’s just an off bottle, I might open up another one; if a customer took a chance on vintage beer and just didn’t like it, I’ll recommend a different beer,” Mahan says. “Either way, it should just come off the check.” If you’re too shy to say something, expect your server to make a move. “If you ordered a vintage beer and aren’t drinking it, you’ve pushed it aside, or you’re already asking for something else, we’ll notice: We’re trained to sense when you don’t like something, and we’ll fix it.”

 

Author
Jessica Daynor is DRAFT’s managing editor. Reach her at jessica.daynor [at] draftmag.com.

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