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Small batch brews hit the auction block

skinner inc.

Skinner Inc., the Bay State auction house best known for decorative arts, jewelry, wine, and other high-end objects, has gone into the beer business. Last month, Skinner sold a bottle of beer for nearly $1,600. The 2008 Cantillon Don Quijote, made at the famed Brussels brewery, was one of only 240 released. Prized for its musty fruit notes, the Don Quijote is acidic enough to be aged like fine wine.

The auction house is the first brick-and-mortar business of its kind to offer boutique beers, a category that encompasses labor-intensive brews released in small batches. Skinner debuted beer last fall with a bottle of Samuel Adams Utopias, released every year or two, and aged in casks that once held scotch, bourbon, port, or cognac. The high-alcohol brew retails for close to $200. On the auction block two bottles brought in $488. Michael Moser of Skinner sees this market nowhere near its potential. “I envision it being explosive,” he says.

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Brewers from California’s Firestone Walker to Maine’s Allagash are producing more high-end beers than ever. Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont is selling seven with price tags of $20 or more, says co-owner Suzanne Schalow, at the rate of a dozen a week. “We can’t carry a whole store full of beers with these price tags,” she says. “And that’s the tricky thing, I guess, because many of them are truly for beer geeks, who can try a beer and pull out the nuances of the grain, water content, specific hops, and cool weirdness of barrel treatments.”

At $50, the 2008 Xyauyu Birra da Divano Riserva Teo Musso from Italy, which comes corked and waxed, is the priciest brew on the shelf. It pours engine-oil thick with no carbonation (you know it’s Italian when the label says “no gas”). Dense notes of fig and vanilla make it a sipper. You could pop one of these as an after-dinner cordial, but is it worth $50? Probably not.

As brewers invest money and effort, beer has been elevated from an everyman’s drink to a specialty beverage. For a recent 24thanniversary party, Cambridge Brewing Co. released Shadows and Light, made in a process similar to the maderization technique used in the oxidized wines of Portugal and Spain. Brewer Will Myers spent years hauling 5-gallon vessels holding various parts of the beer back and forth from the roof. He can’t estimate how much the beer should cost, but certainly more than the $7 a pint it sells for. “I simply couldn’t calculate a cost according to the effort,” says the brewer. With its up-front sweetness and complex notes of raisins and golden almonds, Shadows and Light tastes like an expensive beer.

Production methods drive up the cost, but so does scarcity. Firestone Walker’s Parabola retails for $16.99 (22 ounces), but small quantities increase demand.

Moser, the Skinner specialist says, “Everything’s new. That’s the challenge. Everyone has their own personal valuations, but with beer it’s not clear what the market will bear. “

At the May beverage auction, beer made up 8 or 9 percent of total sales. The company noticed that bidders overlapped with wine clientele. Good news for an outfit auctioning high-end brews.

Gary Dzen can be reached at gdzen@boston.com.
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