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To Covet Counterfeit Cantillon

May 08, 2020

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

art: Lauren Cierzan

What happens when imitation beer becomes more valuable than the original?

On the day after Christmas 2019, 10 friends gathered for a bottle share in the private lounge of a luxury high-rise near Times Square. There were rare imperial stouts like Side Project’s Beer : Barrel : Time, obscure bottlings from cult brewer Bokkereyder, and plenty of vintage lambics like a 2012 Grote Dorst Angel Foam. But the day’s two most-anticipated beers appeared identical—green Champagne-style bottles with red labels that read Cantillon Jean Chris Nomad. One bottle, however, was a counterfeit.

“There’s a perverse thing going on in the market where the fake is actually highly sought-after now. Because it is a ‘part of history,’” says Nick Fahmie, a New Jersey–based beer enthusiast who attended the tasting. Indeed, the Jean Chris Nomad counterfeit has become, like Sturtevant’s “doubles” or Duchamp’s readymades, a facsimile and a kind of work of art itself.

Back in January 2011, Brasserie Cantillon, the world-renowned Brussels-based lambic specialist, blended 1,200 liters of lambics from three different vintages aged in red Bordeaux, white Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône barrels. The blend was bottled exclusively for Mi-Orge Mi-Houblon, a beer store in Arlon, Belgium. The third in a collaborative project between the store’s owner, Christophe Gillard, and Jean François Vaux, the chocolatier behind Jean Le Chocolatier, the limited release was called Jean Chris Nomad, or “JCN” in beer geek parlance. Available in both 375mL and 750mL formats, the entire run of around 2,000 bottles sold out instantly and became highly prized on the underground beer trading and selling marketplace.

In June 2012, however, a user on the Beer Advocate forums noticed a discrepancy on the label of a JCN bottle he had just received, as compared to legitimate ones in his cellar. “Placing them next to each other, it was obvious to me,” the user wrote. “Look very closely at the labels. The authentic labels have razor-sharp graphics, whereas the counterfeit labels contain graphics which are granular and were printed on a high-quality printer.” Based on its flavor, he suspected it to be a standard gueuze.

A shitstorm ensued. Some thought the user was creating undue anxiety among collectors, that he couldn’t possibly know if it was a fake. To others, the fuzzy-edged label clicked, recalling other reviewers’ comments about a lack of characteristic vinous notes in their bottles. It wasn’t until three years later, in September 2015, when Cantillon’s Jean van Roy and Gillard tasted a real JCN alongside a suspected fake they had purchased from an American eBay seller for $125. It was immediately evident to both men that it was indeed a counterfeit, most likely a re-labeled 2011 Cantillon Classic Gueuze (which was packaged in an identical green bottle).

“The mystery is therefore lifted but not my sadness at the human species,” wrote Gillard on Facebook after the tasting.

But then a funny thing happened. Unlike most other forgeries, JCN fakes weren’t instantly devalued; instead, they became nearly as collectible as their authentic counterparts. Back then, it was still legal to sell bottles on eBay and beer collectors raced to snap up the dozen or so counterfeits believed to be on the market (in beer, appropriated labels are rarely produced to the extent that JCN was). Today, nearly a decade later, real JCNs have shot up in black market value—from around $500 in 2015 to $1,700 or more today—with fakes sometimes demanding nearly as much. (Authentic listings are labeled accordingly: “This is a real bottle...acquired through a respected source,” whereas fakes are usually obtained through private connections.)

 “It’s so exclusive, such a novelty thing,” says Shuyang Fang, a well-known lambic collector in New York. While he was able to acquire a fake JCN as part of a throw-in for a larger lambic purchase, he believes it’s impossible to put a market value on such a curio these days. To some people, it’s completely worthless; to others, priceless. “If someone really wanted it, they would pay whatever it takes to get it.”

For many collectors, like those at the Manhattan tasting, the real and fake have become a set; you can’t drink one until you have the other. (“Part of us deciding to get the real [JCN] was being able to do the side-by-side with the real and fake one,” explains Fahmie.) Though JCN may be the most notorious and highly valued, whale doppelgängers have become a category unto themselves.

Considered by some to be the No. 1 beer in the world, Toppling Goliath’s Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout became embroiled in a refilling scandal in 2014. Barrel-aged versions of 3 Floyds’ Dark Lord and Goose Island’s Bourbon County Vanilla Rye are also rumored to have been copied. Fang suspects that the bottles of Brabantiae, a 1991 Port barrel–aged lambic also from Cantillon, recently flooding the market are fakes—yet collectors who surely know better keep buying them. Despite being a counterintuitive notion, for some collectors, the experience of drinking something exceptionally rare can hold more value than drinking something exceptionally good. And what’s rarer than an object whose true nature was never supposed to be discovered?

There’s a reason so many beer fakes are lambics—the spontaneously fermented style’s flavor profile is unpredictable, especially after years of aging, ranging from tart and cider-like to barnyard brett-y; it can be difficult for a drinker to know what tastes “right.” Also, many come in a standard gueuze bottle, which can be easily transformed with a fake label.

To make matters more complicated in the case of JCN, until recently, Cantillon had the strange habit of giving away fresh labels to anyone who asked for them, intended for bar owners who might want to “refresh” the look of a vintage bottle. And while American eBay no longer allows beer sales, its Belgian/Dutch counterpart, 2dehands, does—which is where Fang has observed most of today’s suspicious activity. He wonders if some tickers (beer drinkers obsessed with trying literally every bottle of import) are fine with being duped. “If it makes you happy,” he says, “maybe it’s better to be ignorant.”

But why does a fake whale bring satisfaction to a certain breed of drinkers? Perhaps it’s the delight of the hijinks, the cheeky gesture of drinking a sloppy replica? Maybe it’s proximity to true crime, the thrill of drinking literal contraband. Or maybe it’s part of the performative dance, choreographed especially for Instagram.

For his part, Fahmie believes that blind tasting a fake alongside the real whale can provide a true test of one’s palate. At the tasting on December 26, the group lost track of which JCN was which until they popped the corks. “The difference between the two was super clear,” says Fahmie. “The depth and complexity of the real one was light years ahead of the fake.”

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