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1869- You Can Almost Smell the Gunpowder

Have you ever seen the movie “American Pie” where the one girl phrases her whole life by referencing “this one time at band camp.” Well, two weeks ago, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to sample a beer bottled in 1869. With this in mind, I have decided that from now on, all of my stories will be started with this in mind. “Man we brewed a batch of Double IPA last week that almost killed me. Still, it had to be easier than those guys who brewed that beer from 1869. How about last week when I found myself in a conversation. “You know, this one time in 1869…” Hopefully you get the picture. To most historians,1869 is a very important year- include me on that list.

So follow me as we go back in time through the pages of history. It’s 1869. A civil war has recently ravaged our country. Think North vs. South. That’s what our history books have always led me and my Manifest Destiny brethren to believe. Yet, lately I become much less American Centric in my views of history. Stepping off planes, trains and buses in Europe has a way of shaking the foundations of importance and the educational system of our country that views our history above all else. I suppose it’s due in part to not having been bombed or marched through as part of a longer running timeline?

Out West, we forget that our country, the one we currently occupy, started innocently enough in 1492. That is if you believe that Columbus was the first to land on our shores. So way back in 1492, we were “discovered.” Yet looking towards Europe and England around the same time period, we’re left considering a whole separate world of discovery on the doors of a church.

But really you’re thinking. Enough of the history. Let’s talk beer. Well, 1869 is now an incredibly important to the life of Tomme Arthur as it frames the oldest bottle of beer that I have ever had the privilege to taste. And for the record, I would drink water from 1869, if I didn’t think it would kill me. Just so that I could see how miserable it was.

Prior to this bottle of beer from 1869, the oldest bottle of beer that I was able to sample was a Thomas Hardy Ale from 1968. Thanks to the generosity of Tom Nickel of O’Briens Pub and Dr. Bill Sysak, I had the opportunity some three years ago to sample not one but three vintages of this epic ale. As a brewer, I considered myself incredibly lucky to have sampled the entire vertical of the Thomas Hardy Ales. It was another once in a lifetime opportunity.

But let’s get back to the beer from 1869. Recently, our great friend Mark Dorber of the famed White Horse in London, acquired some incredibly rare vintages of Vintage Bass Ales. The 1869 was rumored to be part of this stash and Mark indeed received 15 bottles. I had heard this to be the case and figured “I need to taste that.”

It’s one thing to want, it’s another to need but sometimes, you just have to beg the crack dealer to give you some dope when you need it. And I was in need of some serious 1869 smack.

So it was, that when our European adventure was being planned, Mark ask innocently enough if there was something that we might “fancy” in the realm of English Specialty beers. As a publican of one of the best bars known to man, I didn’t doubt his ability to acquire this beer. Also, I didn’t ask for one beer as to seem overly needy so I started with a request for some JHB (Jeffery Hudson Bitter) that I fell in love with many years ago. This was a slam dunk even for white British guys who have no leaping abilities.

Next, I lobbed a mid grade request for something cask conditioned and vintage. The White Horse is famous for things in its cellars. To tell you the truth, I don’t even recall what it was. Last time we were there, it was Theakston’s Old Peculiar with Brett that was indeed Peculiar and Awesome!

In closing my email, I instructed Mark that he better have not one but TWO bottles of the 1869 Ratcliffe Ale waiting for us. We were important Americans and one bottle wouldn’t suffice. I didn’t actually expect that we would get to taste this beer but I was to be pleasantly surprised.

That Thursday night after our mini pub crawl through London, we dined at the White Horse. After dinner, and prior to the stinky cheese platter, we followed Mark downstairs into the infamous White Horse Cellars. Like a proud father, he presented us with a decanter full of a ruby liquid. Immediately, I thought we were sampling some sort of dessert wine.

Mark procured a set of glasses and we were left swirling and sniffing history. None of us knew it at the time. He had conveniently left the bottle stashed. None of us correctly guessed what we were drinking nor were we even close on our dates. My best guess was something that was 20-30 years old. Certainly missed by “oh, I don’t know a hundred years!”

The beer was dark ruby red with streaks of mahogany racing through its depths. Obvious signs of oxidation were present but then again, they were not destructive in their character. The standard caramelized notes of staling beer were well into a fifth realm that turned the flavors to Sherry. I detected a pervasive smokiness and there was a rawhide quality to the beer as well.

The first sip was an explosion of confusion (under my breath thinking the whole time…”no known pathogens can live in beer- I will not die from drinking this beer”)! There was a tremendous amount of acidity but the tartness presented itself before giving way to the huge overbearing caramel notes. I’m not sure how much of something like this you are supposed to drink. But in my world, when someone opens something so scarce, you make like you are baking brownies at home and ask with politeness in your voice and a glisten in your eye “would it be acceptable to lick the bottle clean?”

Now, I have met some of the largest certifiably nuts beer enthusiasts in the world. And the thing that always amazes me about them is how magnanimous they can be with their beers. It’s very endearing. I suppose this happens in the wine world as well with oenophiles wishing to display their collections with stunning brilliance?

But here’s the rube, Mark is probably (without fail) sitting on thousands of pounds (that’s dollars) of beer. He mentioned that only 15 bottles of this Ratcliffe 1869 Ale were found. There’s no way to predict what these bottles are worth on ebay but, we’re certainly not talking about Stone 02.02.02 either.

I’ve got to believe that these bottles would easily fetch north of 5K per bottle if not more. Somebody, would have to have them. And price would follow accordingly. I have to say this was a surreal experience. It’s not that often you can touch the past in such a tangible way.

One hundred years from now when I am dead and stiff, I can only hope that the 2 cases of Angel’s Share that I have stashed will be unearthed and in sufficient shape that it will be coveted and written about. History can be pretty cool like that. Especially when it finds you 750ml at a time.

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