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19th-Century Beer in a 21st-Century World

Here’s the remarkable story of a very, very old bottle of beer.

Patrick Dawson Jul 20, 2017 - 8 min read

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The beer had to be poured through a piece of cheesecloth to strain out crumbled bits of ancient cork. After 15 minutes and four different corkscrews, it became apparent that holding back 10 percent ABV beer for more than 145 years had been too much for the aged stopper. This bottle of the vaunted Ratcliff Ale, a barleywine brewed by Bass in 1869, just four short years after the end of the American Civil War, must have had an Encino Man-moment being poured out into this radically changed world. This bottle was the first (reported) one opened in more than seven years, and accounts of previous tastings were all varying degrees of positive—a notable achievement for any beer aged more than a century. Ratcliff is one of the rarest and most highly sought after vintage beers in the world, not only because of its age, but also because it tastes really, really good.

The English Barleywine

Ask a beer lover his or her favorite cellar-worthy beer, and chances are it’s a barleywine. The style is a broadly interpreted one, though, and the various types age differently. The hoppy American barleywines typically show some benefit from a short stint in the cellar, developing pleasant sherry notes and hints of toffee. However, it’s the malt-forward English varietal with its wealth of potential aged flavors that has earned barleywines their vintage reputation. Chock-full of fruity esters and initially harsh fusel alcohols, given time these elegant ol’ chaps have the building blocks to develop a myriad of flavors such as Madeira, amaretto, figs, and tobacco.

Well-made English barleywines have been known to hold up for decades and, in rare cases, for more than a century. Some of the best-known examples are the Bass Corkers, a series of barleywines crafted by England’s famous Burton-On-Trent brewery and of which the Ratcliff Ale is a part. Named such because they were sold in champagne-style bottles with elaborate wax and lead corked seals, Corkers were only made every few decades to mark special occasions and were carefully crafted with the intent to be saved for generations.

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