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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Henry's Private Reserve: The Final PDX Bottling at 22

When Miller closed the old Blitz-Weinhard brewery in 1999, many of the brands that had been brewed in Portland moved to the Miller-owned plant in Olympia. That included Henry's Private Reserve, which was launched in 1976 and was arguably Oregon's first craft or near-craft beer.

Private Reserve had become legendary long before production moved out of state. As I've said before, I don't think the quality of the beer suffered when it was brewed in Olympia starting in 1999 or when it moved to Hood River in 2003. Quality did go to hell when production moved to Colorado in 2013. It's a common theme with acquired brands.

Fans of the beer here in Portland were sad to see the old brewery close. Some of them stocked up on that last bottling of Private Reserve, brewed at the end of August 1999. One of the loons who collected some of that final bottling is a dog friend of mine. It turns out the pandemic and a puppy have shifted my friends list from beer bars and breweries to dog parks. That's where I met Brian. 

When the brewery closed in 1999, Brian bought a six pack of Private Reserve. He stashed the beer in his basement, where it sat on a shelf at cellar temperature for the last 22 years and change. When he mentioned that he had the beer, I asked if he'd be willing to share a bottle. He hedged. Then, on New Year's Eve, a small bag showed up at my door. Inside, a bottle of Private Reserve bottling #140. 

I knew the bottle came from the final run of Private Reserve because that information was published at the time in The Oregonian. My research for Portland Beer turned up that tidbit. Another not-so-well known fact is that Private Reserve was not the final beer packaged in Portland. It turns out 40-ounce bottles of Mickey's Malt Liquor made up the last production run here. 

As discussed earlier, Private Reserve vintages started with #1. The initial beer was packaged in longneck bottles and shipped in wooden crates. The crates were gone quickly, replaced with cardboard. The longneck bottles stuck around for a time, but were eventually replaced with a standard bottle such as we see with #140 and #13. Also, vintage #13 included only a few cases...for the same reason that many buildings don't have 13th floors, I suppose. 

It occurs to me that Blitz-Weinhard used the batch numbers for a time and then dropped them. They were making a lot of the stuff and constantly changing the label became a pain. That's intel I gathered during the book project, but I can't find a reference to back it up. It may have been something someone told me and I didn't record. 

I don't know what constituted a batch of Private Reserve. Could there have been 140 batches brewed during the 23 years the beer was produced at the Portland brewery? Maybe, probably. And even it they weren't using batch numbers on labels for a period of time, I suppose it's possible they were tracking batches and that the final batch was, in fact, #140. If there's another explanation, I don't know what it is. Please contact me if you do.

The bottle I was given had a twist-off cap. I recall that the Private Reserve I was drinking in the eighties and nineties came in bottles with twist caps. I know the early vintages had standard crown caps because I've seen and handed some of those bottles. There are also pictures on the internet showing bottles without the threads needed for a twist-off cap. 

I suspected the twist-off cap was a bad omen in terms of what I would find inside the bottle. I used twist-off caps a few times when I was a home brewer, with dreadful results. I also had the experience of tasting old vintages of Sierra Nevada Celebration several years ago. The beer in the twist-off bottles was invariably damaged. The beer housed under standard crown caps fared better.

There was no pressure released when I removed the cap. In fact, the cap was seemingly welded to the bottle and I had to grip it with a towel to get it off. The bottle had been refrigerated for a week or so before I opened it, so it poured cold and clear. But there was no carbonation. And the color was off, significantly darker than it should have been. I instantly knew the beer was gone.

Most who have homebrewed know the flavor of malt extract syrup. My bottle of Private Reserve tasted like watered down malt extract syrup. No hops character at all, which I anticipated. Oxidation had destroyed this beer, returning it to its base form. The twist-off cap was probably the main culprit, though maybe a standard crown cap wouldn't have made a difference. I don't know.

Tasting old beer vintages can be fun. But it's seldom rewarding in my experience. Nonetheless, thanks to Brian for sharing a bottle of Private Reserve from the final production run in Portland. I'll keep the bottle in my collection. I hope to disappear memories of the beer from my palate.