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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lessons From a 25-Year-Old Beer

Last night a group of friends and I cracked open the first bottling of Old Knucklehead from BridgePort--a beer dating back to 1989.  Back in the day, Old Knucklehead (OK) was a wonderful tradition.  The brewery honored a local codger (some famous, some not) by putting his visage on a little nip bottle.  It combined localness, particularity, and tradition all in one lovely little package.  (The brewery would do well revive the tradition, methinks.  It's hyper local tradition and wouldn't account for many barrels in absolute terms, but it would get a ton of press and continue a beloved tradition.  It's also perfect for the social media age.)

I have no idea who's on that first bottle--I think it was a regular at the old brewery.  Labeling standards were different then (no government warning, for instance), and the ABV isn't listed.  If memory serves, OK was a relatively low-alcohol barley wine--nine percentish.  All of which made analyzing it more dependent on what our senses could tell us. 

One thing you could tell right away was the clarity--even in the bottle.  That was a good sign.  When we cracked it, the bottle let out a nice pssst, and bubbles sprang to the surface.  Old Knucklehead was bottle-conditioned, and there was a thick layer of now-black yeast at the bottom.  Bottle conditioning is great for aging beers in the shorter term--the yeast harvests oxygen while refermenting in the bottle.  But it also raises the risk of autolysis (yeast cell degradation). 

 Twenty-five years is a long time, but amazingly, the beer had little flavor of autolysis and also not a ton of oxidation.  For those who like the effect of oxidation on high alcohol beers, this was an argument for the prosecution.  A tinge of paper, but mostly a rich, sherry-like note.  There were no hops left, but the beer was not overly sweet.  Some bread pudding and raisin, but balanced by the sherry note. 

The beer probably would have been better a decade or two earlier, but it was still surprisingly fresh and tasty.  People often ask me how long you can store beer before it's a lost cause, and I've always been reluctant to answer.  My data set--like most people's--is not flush with examples.  But 25 years is quite a test.  And this bottle, which was well cared-for in that quarter-century, held up remarkably well.

Bright and effervescent after 25 years.


  1. I'm sure Pete Dunlop will chime in, since he included this factoid in his book, but the first Knucklehead was Roger Madden, the brewery's landlord.

  2. Leave it to Jim to beat me here...I had a prior engagement. Jeff read my book closely and at one time knew that Madden, owner of the vacant building that became the home of Bridgeport, was on that first label. But it's one of those things only geeks need to remember. Plus, Jeff is getting old and loses track of stuff from time to time. As he says, there were a number of local codgers who made the label. Onetime mayor, Bud Clark, was on the label at least once. I hope someone tracked this. Karl Ockert may know about that. I doubt the Ponzis have any idea.

    With respect to the beer, I handled an unopened bottle of '89 OK while taking photos for my book. I did not open it. Based on my experience with HOD Doggie Claws, I would expect OK to hold up fairly well, although 25 years is certainly too long. How it was stored is probably the crucial factor. Beer stored in an attic (such as the unopened quart bottle of 1989 Portland Ale that Art Larrance gave me) ain't gonna do so well. You need wine cellar-like conditions to get decent results, which people reading this surely know.

  3. It might be worth asking here if anyone knows of clues on old (I'm talking the '80s here) Thomas Hardy bottles as to what years they might be. I have a handful with water-damaged labels so I can't tell what years they are anymore! A vintage beer tragedy....

  4. Yes indeed, my brain failed to retain that info. It failed to recall that there were any sources at all but those available through Google--and the Google was mute on this issue. It goes to show that I am a poor historian. Thanks for the clarification--

  5. You aren't a poor historian. You just aren't an historian. I should not expect you or anyone else to recall the trivial stuff I have in my head at all times. Cheers

  6. I have 2 bottles of old Knuckhead N:001 1989 which I'm sorry to say I havn't taken care which I should have!
    Jim Partin Oceanside Oregon