Homebrew: art that is destroyed by experiencing it

For Thanksgiving 2013, I brewed my first Biere de Garde, after discovering the style and then reading Garrett Oliver’s suggestion that it’s the perfect pairing for the holiday feast. My brew was a hit. At Thanksgiving 2019, we drank the final bottle from that batch.

Friday we drank another final bottle that had been lurking in my cellar, an Eisbock brewed in 2013. Even as many obscure beer styles are pioneered or revitalized in the homebrewing community and then are taken to the public by mainstream craft breweries, Eisbock remains relatively unknown. I expect this is due to the fact that freeze-concentrating beer, at a production scale, would require specialized equipment that most breweries won’t acquire.

Then yesterday we drank the final bottle of a 2011 smoked porter (excellent) and one of the last few of a 2015 smoked porter (one-dimensional).

It may be a stretch to call homebrew art; I see it as more of a craft. Art or craft, it’s something that can only be experienced a finite number of times. The act of tasting it simultaneously depletes it.

This matters little for a ten-gallon batch of something mediocre or a recipe that the brewer can consistently replicate (an expert achievement in homebrewing). But the rare or experimental five-gallon batch that captures lightning in the bottle – much less a one-gallon batch – poses a quandary. The brewer balances the desire to share and consume with the instinct to ration and savor.

I brewed a lambic in 2011 and diverted a gallon into a jug stuffed with tart cherries. It was sensational, but I had only ten bottles to enjoy. That beer never made it to any competitions – it was too precious.

Bottling helps in stashing away a batch (an artwork?) longer than it might last in a kegerator. But nothing is immutable, and bottled beer faces the specter of oxidation and change over time. I held onto bottles of a 2010 Flanders Red for years. That beer won best in show at the 2011 Homebrew at the World Expo of Beer competition, besting over a thousand other entries. But over time it grew more sour in the bottle and became unbalanced.

I also squirreled away some of the first Knob Creek Barrel beer, an Imperial Stout with remarkable oak and bourbon flavors. It peaked a year or two ago and now is past its prime. Writing this is a good reminder to get the last few bottles into the fridge to enjoy and bid that beer farewell.

Kegged gems can go especially quickly. A keg of delicately-soured Belgian Golden Strong that took six months to ferment was consumed within hours at a party. For HomebrewCon 2014, I blended two batches of Flanders Red to perfection. They’d been fermented in different conditions over a year. I watched proudly as that keg blew within an hour as word of mouth spread through the expo center.

Homebrew is a little like time, or life, this way. You enjoy it as it is consumed, leaving only memories and knowledge that might influence how you proceed in the future. A batch is shared, discussed, and consumed; it fades; the next one is brewed.

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