Buried in the deepest corner of your favorite beer bar lies a stash of one of the world’s greatest brews.
It’s been guarded jealously, hidden from sight, untouched by meddlesome bartenders. Even regular customers who know the tap list by heart have never caught a whiff.
This fine beer – probably an ale, but maybe a hearty lager – was aged for years, maybe even a decade. It’s a flavor so rare that those who are lucky enough to swallow a drop will talk about it for years.
And only the lucky ever get a taste.
What is this fine brew?
It’s the Secret Keg – a perfectly preserved barrel that the owner’s been holding, waiting for the perfect occasion to finally tap it open. Ask almost any barkeep who loves good beer, and he or she will tell you there’s a Secret Keg – or at least a couple dozen dusty bottles – buried in the basement.
Invariably, it is a world-classic beer, for who would bother to save a keg of pedestrian lager?
And it’s likely something with a high alcohol content, which will allow it to survive and even improve over years of sitting still in a steel keg. Bottles of the enormous Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, with alcohol levels exceeding 20 percent, are a favorite layaway.
Often, it’s excessively hopped as well. Hops, as in traditional India pale ales, are a preservative, and their bitterness tends to mellow with age.
Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, the barleywine from California, might be the classic Secret Keg. That’s partly because this hugely hopped ale with 9.6 percent alcohol is often a slow-mover at the bar; even some leather-gullets might blanch at its powerful flavor.
But give it a couple years and you find the ale ages wonderfully; the most finely tuned palates detect subtle differences with each passing year. Tom Peters at Monk’s Cafe said he recently opened a keg of Bigfoot produced in 2000 and found “the hops were much softer. It was closer to an English barleywine in flavor profile.”
Often more than improving taste, though, the motivation behind sitting on a keg is emotional. The bar owner has a singular attachment to a particular barrel that only he can explain.
William Reed, co-owner of Northern Liberties’ Standard Tap, has been holding a keg of Samuel Adams Triple Bock since it was made in 1994. It’s a warm reminder of the years he served as brewmaster at the old Sam Adams brewpub on Sansom Street.
“We still had some in oak casks when we sold and Nodding Head took over, so I transferred it to stainless steel,” Reed said. “I thought the contact with oak was improving it, so I put some oak chips in a [bag] and it’s been sitting there the whole freaking time.
“I have no idea what it tastes like. I’d like to try it, but I haven’t broached it yet . . .
“I’ve got signs all over it: DO NOT TAP! PLEASE LEAVE ALONE! It’s like a 13-year-old boy’s bedroom.”
When will he open it? Reed doesn’t know. “I guess I’m kind of waiting to see something special. You kind of forget about it, then you realize 10 years have gone by.”
There’s the danger that, after so many years, the flavor will never live up to the expectations. But that’s part of the fun: tapping the unknown. That’s why it’s always worth a story. Only a few dozen others will have enjoyed the same unique flavor.
The down side, though, is even the most devoted beer lovers rarely get a taste. The decision to tap a Secret Keg is often made on the spur of the moment. The bar owner just feels it’s the right time. He pours himself a glass, jots its name on the blackboard and, within hours, the keg is kicked. Unless you happen to be sitting at the bar the night it’s opened, you’ve missed your shot at this once-in-a-lifetime pint.
If you’ve read this far, though, you know I wouldn’t be writing about Secret Kegs unless I had an angle. Here’s the heads up:
Tonight, Dawson Street Pub (Dawson and Cresson streets, Manayunk) will open a three-year-old keg of Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre. It’s part of a promo featuring Dogfish Head’s personable owner, Sam Calagione.
Dawson Street’s Dave Wilby said the keg is a leftover from a beer fest at nearby Manayunk Brewing Co. a few years ago. It’s been sitting in his basement ever since.
Made with beet sugar and raisins, Raison D’Etre is a richly flavored dark ale that – after so many months – should pour like a burgundy juiced up by Jose Canseco.
“I have no idea what’ll taste like, but it should age pretty well,” Wilby said.
Show up between 8 and 10, and you’ll be lucky enough to find out.
Where they’re hiding
Not that you’ll ever get a taste, but here are some other Secret Kegs hidden at local joints:
– Monk’s Cafe (16th and Spruce streets, Center City). Co-owner Tom Peters’ basement is reminiscent of the last scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” only with beer instead of religious artifacts. He’s still holding onto a Hair of the Dog Adam that was part of his first beer order when Monk’s opened eight years ago. Though you already missed the opening of a 2000 Victory Old Horizontal, keep checking back: kegs of the Downingtown-made barleywine from ’99, ’01 and ’02 are still on hand.
Even more intriguing are the half-dozen wooden casks of JW Lees Harvest Ale. Wood, naturally, imparts its own unique flavor; some of these casks were finished with various alcohols, including calvados, porto and Lagavulin single malt whiskey.
– McMenamin’s (7170 Germantown Ave., Mount Airy). Owner P.J. McMenamin says that while he’ll occasionally tap an older keg (last November’s Victory Moonglow Weizenbock pours tonight), he mostly holds onto vintage bottles.
“I have a couple cases of Pyramid Snowcap, that sits pretty well. And of course Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale, from ’97, I think,” McMenamin said. He’s also sitting on large, wax-capped bottles of Flying Fish Grand Cru.
What’s he waiting for? “I like to open them up when homebrewers stop in,” McMenamin said. “They really appreciate it.”
– Standard Tap (2nd and Poplar streets, Northern Liberties). In addition to that keg of Triple Bock, owner William Reed’s holding onto a pin (a 4 1/2-gallon keg) of ice bock made by Sly Fox brewer Brian O’Reilly when he worked at the now-closed New Road brewpub in Collegeville.
“That’s wicked strong,” said Reed. “I kind of knew that, when he left New Road, he go on to do something cool. I thought I’d hold onto it for him – it’ll mean more to him than it does to me. He’s a friend, maybe I’ll just have him over some night and we’ll tap it.”
– Grey Lodge Pub (6235 Frankford Ave., Mayfair). Owner Mike (Scoats) Scotese said he’s only recently begun holding onto kegs for special events. His Christmas in July celebration will feature December’s Troegs Mad Elf, Victory Resolution Porter and Sly Fox Christmas Ale.
Yet, he’s always had luck finding older kegs at his supplier, Edward I. Friedland Co., including, recently, three-year-old Yards Old Ale and Old Bart.
“I do expect the beer’s flavor to mellow out and have a long finish with some nice aging,” Scoats said.
But “sometimes, though, you do get a surprise,” he added. “The two-year-old barrel of Sierra Nevada Big Foot that we tapped for Groundhog Day was incredibly hoppy, not at all what I was expecting.”
– General Lafayette Inn & Brewery (6461 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill). Owner Chris Leonard keeps mini-kegs of every year’s Dubbel, a heavy-duty Belgian-style ale. “My goal was to one day have a vertical tasting night” of each year’s version, he said.
Unfortunately, not all of them aged well.
“Most mellow a bit for the first year or so, then they seem to dry out to the point where they’re not as interesting as I’d hoped,” Leonard said. “So, I’ll put one on without warning every now and then, usually when I’m short a specialty beer. The folks who happen in that night just get lucky.”
Stuff magazine readers named Copa, Too! (263 S. 15th St., Center City) one of the 20 best dives in America. The criteria, according to the March issue, strong drinks, cheap food and hot bartenders . . . Grey Lodge is now serving food and beer on its newly renovated second floor . . .
Small Craft Warning Uber Pils, the latest in Clipper City’s Heavy Seas series of heavy-duty flavors, is in town. At 7 percent alcohol, it’s a pilsner disguised as a bock . . . Other new stuff on local shelves: Lancaster Brewing Hop Hog IPA, DeProef Flemish Primitive, Ramstein Classic Dunkel Weizen, Geants Goliath, Samuel Adams Black Lager and Saison Voisin.
Tomorrow: Brewers Reserve Night at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (3 W. Gay St., West Chester). Harpoon Brewing brings some of its New England specialties to compare with the I-Hill chain’s best. Come out and boo the Bostonians and guzzle their one-of-a-kind, oak-aged India pale ale. $35, including dinner. Taps open 5 p.m. 610-738-9600.
Feb. 27: Belgian beer dinner at Ortino’s Northside (1355 Gravel Pike, Zieglerville). Lost in the boonies without a decent draft selection? This joint is an oasis. 610-287-7272.
Beer, Book and the Cook
As always, the Book and the Cook series features a number of notable beer events. They always sell out early, so here’s early warning:
March 11: Michael Jackson (“Great Beer Guide”) beer dinner at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. 215-893-3900.
March 12: Jackson beer tasting at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Three sessions. 215-893-3900.
March 15: Stephen Beaumont (“Premium Beer Drinkers Guide”) at Monk’s Cafe. 215-545-7005.
March 16: Eric Tucker (“The Artful Vegan”) at Nodding Head Brewery. 215-569-9525.
March 16: Duane Swierczynski (“The Big Book o’ Beer”) at Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant. 215-482-8220.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of A1A’s A Strange Stout.