Q&A: Beers for Stashing

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“Any recommendations for stash beers?” — Rob G.

This question came up in the context of a Twitter discussion in which someone shared a photo of their collection of special beers inteded for ageing. It included Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Old Chimney’s Good King Henry, Courage Russian Imperial and Lees Harvest Ale, which is a pretty good list to begin with.

Now, we’re not really into ageing beer ourselves, purely because we haven’t got the time, space or money to do it properly, but we’re certainly interested and so have had a go at answering this question. We suspect more useful advice will emerge in the commments.

First, some thoughts on general principles.

One reason for building a collection is to enable comparison over time, either by drinking the same beer at intervals and keeping notes, or by drinking multiple vintages of the same beer in a so-called ‘vertical tasting’. With that in mind it makes sense to focus on better-established breweries that have been producing a big stout or barley wine for some years and look set to continue brewing it for a few years more. That way you should be able to collect a set worth playing with. There’s also a sort of insurance in buying from breweries who know what they’re doing, and whose beer is less likely to reveal flaws and off-flavours over time.

When we spoke to Jezza (@BonsVoeux1) for our recent article on Belgium obsessives in CAMRA’s BEER magazine he mentioned that when stocking his collection of aged and ageing beer he now buys “huge quantities at a time”. That’s because he frequently found himself wishing he’d bought a lot more of a beer as it reached a state of perfection after many years hidden in his cupboard. So we’d say that means looking for beers that aren’t prohibitively expensive and which you can conceive of buying by the case, perhaps with only a bit of wincing and digging around for coppers down the back of the sofa.

Or, to put all that another way, this is one area where ‘boring’, easy-to-buy beers and breweries are probably a safer bet than obscurities.

We found that the Fuller’s Past Masters 1893 Double Stout got better over the course of a couple of years, and the bottle we found in a London pub that must have been three years old was astonishingly good. You won’t find any of that around now but that’s an example of the kind of beer we should have bought a lot more of and left alone. Fuller’s Imperial Stout, a new batch of which is out now, is a similar beer (but not quite as good, in our view) and will probably age in similar ways.

A beer Jezza mentioned as a particular focus of his ageing project was De Dolle Stille Nacht which, when available, can be picked up in the UK for between £4-5 per 330ml bottle. (He has bottles going back to 1989.)

Belgian beers, tending to the strong and sweet, generally age well. (But triples, wheat beers and hop-focused beers probably won’t yield as much from ageing, even if they’ll sell ’em to you at Kulminator.) Rochefort 10 is one we’d consider filling a cellar with, especially if you can pick it up in Belgium at Belgian prices — it’s getting prohibitively expensive in the UK.

Orval (not especially strong or sweet) is one famous example of a beer often drunk aged and which has the benefit of showing its development relatively quickly, over the course of months rather than years. If you bought a batch of twelve every six months, at around £30-40 a go, you’d be able to compare fresh with six-month, with one-year, with two-years, and so on, and soon learn its ways and your own preferences. (It is also good for magically enhancing other beers.)

The Beer Nut’s side project, Stash Killer, is a useful source of knowledge on what time does to specific beers. Of an 8-year-old Westmalle Dubbel, an easy to find, consistent and affordable beer, he says:

There’s sweet sherry in the flavour… which is possibly just oxidation at work, but it does transform the beer in a fun and pleasant way. It hasn’t become magically heavier than usual, but it has elements of the things you find in double-digit dark Belgian-style beers: the fruit, the cake, the rounded estery greasiness, though not the heat. It still remains lightly textured and easy drinking… Seems to me like a handy way to upgrade your Westmalle Dubbel into something more complex is leave it alone for a few years.

That sounds like something we’ll have to try. Do look at his other posts for more suggestions.

If you want to read something more substantial on this we recommend Patrick Dawson’s 2014 book Vintage Beer which contains detailed notes on how to age beer, what to expect from the process, general advice on which types of beer generally age well, as well as tips on which specific beers to buy.

Now, to those comments — tell us, what’s worked for you?

News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 December 2017: Brixton, Walkabout, TransPennine Trains

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the past week from sexist beer branding to chronic Oztalgia.

First, that brewery takeover news. Well, we say ‘takeover’ but in fact Heineken has actually acquired a non-controlling (49 per cent) stake in south London’s Brixton Brewery. With this, Camden Town and London Fields in mind, it begins to seem that the key to luring in investment from Big Beer is a good neighbourhood-specific brand name. We can certainly imagine Brixton Craft Lager competing for bar-space with Camden Hells in the near future. The general reaction seems to be neutral, shading positive — ‘good for them’ — but this slam from Yes! Ale reflects the counterview: “You may as well be pissin’ straight into the fermenter, Moneybags.”

Meanwhile, Spanish firm Mahou San Miguel has acquired a 30 per cent stake in Avery, a brewery in Colorado, while AB-InBev has acquired Australian upstarts Pirate Life lock, stock and (ahem) barrel. December is a busy time for this kind of activity every year now, it seems, perhaps for as obvious a reason as everyone scrambling to wrap up negotiations before the Christmas lull.

One final bit of reading on this: Richard Taylor of BrewDog writing at the BeerCast suggests that the Pirate Life story might signal how this will play out in future takeovers, with Big Beer winning over reluctant craft brewers with the offer of a separate smaller brewery to play around on making sour beers or whatever. “Hey guys, it’s fine”, he imagines the Big Beer negotiators saying. “We’ll build a new brewery for your core stuff and push it to market. You can keep the old kit and go wild on it. Brew what you like! Go for IT! HIGH FIVE. NOW. HIGH FIVE US LIKE A DUDE. RADICAL!’”

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Everything We Wrote in November 2017: Patreon’s Choice, Cask Magic, Brussels

November 2017 (and the ceiling of a Bristol pub)

Here’s everything we wrote last month in one handy round-up, including bits and pieces published in places other than the blog, and links to responses by other bloggers where we spotted them.

We began the month by raving about a delicious Vienna lager from Zero Degrees in Bristol. When we went back for more a few days later, it had run out. We hope it gets brewed again.


We observed that there seems to have been a flood of porters this autumn and mentioned a few we’d spotted. Earlier this week we noticed that Truman’s also have one out, though it’s not the first year they’ve done so. (Lisa Grimm mentioned this post in her contribution to…)


Session #129 was about missing beer styles, which led us to the conclusion that every beer style under the sun appears to be in product in or near Bristol — what a time to be alive! (Eoghan Walsh’s round-up of all the contributions is here.)

Continue reading “Everything We Wrote in November 2017: Patreon’s Choice, Cask Magic, Brussels”

Q&A: What’s the Story of Branded Pub Mirrors?

“Do you have any information on the history of brewery and distillery branded mirrors? No one I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly why or how they started, or why they dropped off.” — Nathan, via Twitter

It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment a trend began but we do know, first, that the popularity of glass as a building material and for decoration in particular increased after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the centrepiece of which, the Crystal Palace, used glass with great extravagance.

The Crystal Palace.
SOURCE: The British Library.

We also know that techniques for cutting designs into large sheets of glass took off at around the same time leading to early examples of brewery-branded glass panels and mirrors, with only relatively simple designs, in the 1850s and 60s. A technique known as ‘back-painting’ became popular in the 1870s and brought colour into play. (All of that according to Inside the Pub, McDunnet & Gorham, Architectural Press, 1950.) By the end of the 19th century a look and feel that had been the preserve of private homes and exclusive clubs was the preferred style for grander city pubs. But decorative glass  was still relatively expensive, which brings us to the kind of branded mirrors Nathan has in mind.

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Cask Ale is Too Cheap/Expensive

Illustration: Pound Sign/Pint Glass.

Cask ale is both too cheap and too expensive. Or, rather, both of the following statements are true:

  1. It is a problem for brewers that cask beer – culturally important and relatively more difficult to brew, distribute and serve at its best – is expected to be cheaper than other forms of beer on sale in the UK.
  2. Consumers cannot be expected to pay more for cask beer.

Let’s look at item No. 1 first.

We have testimony from multiple brewers that cask ale not only offers only slim profit margins but also comes with additional challenges not found with keg or small-pack products. Take this from Northern Monk, for example:

[Logistically cask is] a massive headache for us… It makes no sense for us to package in a format that we’re not really set up for, has a lower market value than other packaged formats and our beer isn’t particularly suited to.

Or, if you don’t much value the views of ‘upstarts’, here’s Roger Ryman of St Austell: “Overall profit on cask beer is wafer thin in free trade and national distribution where we compete against the many hundreds of breweries that operate in this market”.

So, competition is an issue but we also find ourselves suspecting that if it weren’t for certain oddities in the market – the gravitational pull of the Campaign for Real Ale, a historical expectation that cask will be cheaper than keg – cask would be a premium product costing more than most keg beers. That is sometimes expressed, for the sake of brevity, especially on Twitter, as “Cask is too cheap”, or “Cask ought to be more expensive”, or “I’d be willing to pay more”.

There’s a cheap rhetorical trick that often gets played at this point: “Oh, so you think £3 a pint is too cheap? Alright for you, moneybags.”; “So what you’re saying is that want to exclude poor people from cask altogether then? You elitist bastard.”; “You want to pay more? Are you quite mad?”

(Also a cheap trick: paraphrasing those rather than quoting specific examples, but we don’t want to get into beef with anyone in particular.)

The problem is, those latter voices also have a point, which brings us to item 2.

Nobody Has Any Money

Journalist Will Hawkes put this well on Twitter last week (and, indeed, prompted this entire post):

"People can't pay more. Wages have been in decline for years and will be for years. Brewers need to accept this."

As a consumer it can get pretty exhausting: support pubs, support small breweries, boycott supermarkets, support record shops, support bookshops, support struggling restaurants, support your local butcher, baker, artisanal candlemaker. Buy local, buy Fair Trade, buy British. Oh, and pay into a pension, and save for a rainy day, and put a roof over your head in a property market gone insane, and also we’d like you to go onto a contract which means we can’t guarantee your income from one month to the next. Oh, and it’s 30p to use the toilet now, by the way, because there’s no magic money tree and so on and so forth.

If somehow the price of cask ale rose by, say, 20p a pint across the board, it wouldn’t unlock some secret pot of money that consumers are sitting on. Indeed, it would probably push a significant number over the edge, reducing the number of trips they make to the pub.

“Well, drink less but better,” people sometimes say, but, honestly, if we drank much less we might as well give up and join the Band of Hope, even though going to the pub is our biggest leisure expenditure each month. (If you haven’t already done so try totting up how much you spend in the pub each month – the numbers are a bit scary.)

To us, and others like us, and especially those worse off than us, it doesn’t feel as if cask ale is cheap. The fact that some really cheap beer is available, at Wetherspoon or Sam Smith pubs, doesn’t ‘devalue cask’ – it’s a lifeline, part of the balancing act that means we can occasionally afford to splash on something special at £5 a pint.

So Mr Hawkes is right: brewers and their boosters need to find better ways to tackle this issue than berating or guilt-tripping. Equally, when a brewery makes a commercial decision to pull out of cask, or refuses to budge on price, consumers (and especially real ale campaigners) shouldn’t be turning the guilt-gun back on them: they’re doing what they feel needs to be done to survive in an ever-more competitive market.