By rare-wine standards, the winning bid of $738 (U.S.) for a three-bottle lot at a Boston auction two weeks ago was hardly over the top. At $246 apiece, the items paled next to the retail value of, say, Lafite or Mouton. One detail made Lot 174's price stand out, however. The 650-millilitre bottles contained beer, not wine.
Very fine beer, as one might imagine. As in Goose Island Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout, a Chicago craft brew released in 2010 after maturing for two years in whisky-soaked barrels that had contained the most prized of Kentucky bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23-Year. To beer geeks, the Goose Island Rare is what's known – with a nod and a wink to Melville – as a "whale." To wine folk it might be considered the Mouton of malt, the Haut-Brion of hops.
It was also just one of 48 beer lots in a Feb. 25 fine-ales lineup presented by Skinner, a Massachusetts-based firm that bills itself the first live auctioneer of rare suds. Other top draws included four 375-millilitre bottles of Cantillon Blabaer, a sour Belgian lambic style fermented on blueberries with wild yeasts, which sold for $738, and four bottles of Drie Fonteinen Armand'4 Oude Geuze, another Belgian lambic, at $554. Priciest of all was a 12-bottle set from The Bruery, a cult producer in Orange County Calif., which donated the bottles to raise funds for Boston Marathon bombing victims. It fetched in $1,169, almost $100 a bottle.
It's official. Beer has gone bling. The rise of craft producers and the thriving online exchange of consumer ratings and gossip on such sites as Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate have spawned a generation of big-game beer hunters. It started innocently enough with enthusiasts trading limited-release local brews, beer for beer, between cities. Then money began changing hands – illegally in most cases, at least in North America.
"I saw a bottle sell for $1,500 on eBay and the bell kind of went off," said Michael Moser, specialist in Skinner's fine-wines department. "If someone's willing to pay it there, why not incorporate it into an open market and legal market?" (Legal notice: eBay does not permit alcohol sales unless by pre-approved parties and has since closed the loophole that some had shrewdly used to sell "collectible containers" that also conveniently happened to contain alcohol.)
Last month's Skinner auction, the fourth to feature fine ales, did not in fact set a record for most expensive single bottle. That high beer mark occurred last May and was set by Don Quijote 2008, another lambic from the Brussels-based Cantillon brewery that was fermented with vitis labrusca grapes. Drum roll, please: It went for $1,586 for 750 millilitres. Dollars to ounces, even that fell short of a November online auction by Skinner that saw a half-bottle of the same precious elixir hit the hammer at $1,288, or $17 a teaspoon.
Worth it? I have no clue. Regrettably I have not sampled Don Q, as it's known to wild beerstalkers, and am unlikely to get the chance. A mere 300 bottles were made. Nor has Moser. "That one has eluded me," he said. "A lot of these have eluded me, I'll be honest. When there's only 300 bottles of something, it's kind of hard to elbow your way in."
Moser, a certified cicerone, the beer-expert equivalent of a sommelier, says flavour is just one component of auction-worthiness. The brew must also be scarce and capable of improving with cellar time.
"We're talking about the very tippy-top, 1 per cent of beers," he said. "The vast majority of beer, as is the case with wine, too, are meant to be drunk as soon as possible."
Which pretty much narrows the field to three styles: barley wine, imperial stout and sours. The first two are robust, high-alcohol potations and the third is a nebulous category of tart brews fermented on wild yeasts to achieve a flavour that can seem like an odd combination of ale, cider and wine.
Falling spiritually, if not technically, near those first two categories is heavily hyped Westvleteren 12, a Belgian Trappist ale made in a style called quadrupel. It's come to be described by many lately as the "best beer in the world" thanks to glowing reviews on BeerAdvocate and, perhaps more importantly, to the snob cachet of its Soup Nazi-worthy sales policy. "Westy" is available only at the monastery through a phone reservation system involving licence-plate tracking and an agreement not to resell, ever. (Those marketing-savvy but apparently cash-strapped Trappist monks, in need of abbey renovations, recently decided to make an exception by permitting the sale of thousands of gift packs, with branded glasses, in North America.) Moser says Westy 12 is an exceptional brew but tends not to incite the highest auction fever because "it's brewed all the time."
Paradoxically, the cellar-worthiness prerequisite means some of the most sought-after beers are unlikely to crop up at auction. They include Pliny the Elder from California's Russian River Brewing and Heady Topper from The Alchemist in Vermont. The reason: The huge hop content, which imparts an explosive citrus-pine aroma as well as bitter counterpoint to the malty sweetness, diminishes over time. The compounds are simply unstable. "Those more than anything are meant to be drunk immediately," Moser said.
For now, the live-auction market is largely confined to American bidders, though Moser says people have registered from other countries. In Canada, any auction would have to operate through provincial liquor authorities.
Virtually all of Skinner's lots have come from two countries, the United States and Belgium. Obviously that's a function of Americans' fascination with homegrown brews and dominance on Internet ranking sites as well as of Belgium's storied place in the history of small-lot brewing. There's just not much great Canadian craft beer available south of the border.
Moser says there may come a day when Canadian brews find their way to a live auction. In particular he cites a few he's enjoyed from Quebec's Dieu du ciel! and Le Trou du Diable. "They're doing all the right things."
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The Flavour Principle, by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Published by HarperCollins.