Guest blog #8: Oak aged beers, more than meets the malt
Stephen Rich, Founder and Director of Definition Ale (www.DefinitionAle.com), guest blogs with his post entitled “Oak Aged Beers, More Than Meets the Malt”.
A whisky’s or spirit’s flavor is a manifestation of a great many variables. Everything from the grains, the malting process, the water, and the streams that the water flows though, to the climate and geology can greatly affect the final product’s flavor and ultimate character. Although this is not uncommon of other distilled, fermented, or brewed beverages, one aspect of a whisky’s production that is seemingly ingrained into whisky culture more than any other is barrel ageing.
For hundreds of years, barrel aging has enchanted the hearts and palates of sherry, wine, whisky and rum lovers all across the world. But our fascination and infatuation with wood aged beverages has lead to a most dubious usage; barrel aged beer.
Before the invention of steel kegs or casks, large quantities of beer was traditionally housed in wooden barrels, and often served straight from them. This was primarily due to necessity at the time, but now brewers all over the world, most prominently in America, are maturing their beers in oak barrels for the purpose of flavor!
There are more barrel aged beers available to the public now then there have ever been in the industrialized world, and brewers are utilizing the massive variety of barrels available to them to impart unique and exciting flavors and aromas in their beers.
A great example of what fresh oak can do it the Innis & Gunn Original Oak Aged Beer. It is brewed in Scotland, then is aged for 30 days in fresh American White Oak barrels from Bourbon County Kentucky. From there the beer rests in a marrying tun for a further 47 days to allow the flavors imparted by the oak to smooth and mellow. The result is a velvety Scottish Pale Ale with creamy caramel, toffee, and vanilla flavors that glide gently over your palate and bring a touch of sweet oak and spice.
Brewers aren’t only using fresh oak though; Ithaca Beer Co’s Excelsior Old Habit is a strong rye ale aged in just that, used rye barrels. This beer is brewed with a variety of rye malts, and is partially fermented in Kentucky Rye Barrels then carefully blended. What emerges is a richly woody rye beer with the distinct flavors of sweet rye malts, and crisp rye whisky.
Taking it one step further are the mad geniuses at BrewDog in Scotland. They have created a series of whisky barrel aged Imperial Stouts called Paradox. They begin with their big 10% abv stout, and then age it for 6 months in Oak Barrels that once matured The Arran Malt, Smokehead, Springbank, Longrow, Bowmore, Macallan, and other fine whiskies. Each Paradox beer is sold individually and carries the distinct and unique flavors inherent of that specific whisky barrel in which it was aged. This is magical stuff.
With heritage in mind, one of the world’s most infamous Distilleries has formed a thrilling bond with one of the greatest Scottish Breweries, Harviestoun. Highland Park’s barrels are used to create the highly sought after Harviestoun Ola Dubh (which is Gaelic for engine oil). Harviestoun ages its engine oil-like stout in a variety of Highland Park barrels and thus releases the Ola Dubh as Vintages 12, 16, 18, 25, 30 and 40. Each imparts the distinct flavors of that vintage of Highland Park Whisky – remarkable beer.
Probably my favorite example of oak aged beers is the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. It may have richer and creamier bourbon barrel flavors than that of any beer on this entire planet. The 13% Imperial Stout rests in Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels for 100 days creating a densely black beer with a lush and creamy dark mocha colored head. Flavors of charred oak, vanilla, caramel, chocolate, dried fruit and smoke radiate massively from this beer with silky and masterful poise. There is no end to what brewers can really create when oak finds its way into the equation.
To prove that point, I will introduce probably the most famous barrel aged beer, and also one of the world’s most expensive. The Samuel Adams Utopias commands prices upwards of $300 USD, is 27% abv, and is unlike any beer you have ever had. Its production process involves ageing the beer in various barrels such as bourbon, Madeira, and brandy, then blending them with older vintages dating back to 1994. Sound familiar? This is truly a world class beer and shows what brewers are capable of when let loose on some fine oak barrels.
Look beyond the stereotypical brands and flavors of beer, and you can discover something truly remarkable. Now is the most innovative, ingenious, and exhilarating time to enjoy real beer. Brewers all across the works are coloring outside the lines by brewing with unique ingredients, utilizing new and creative processes, and incorporating previously unthought-of techniques to create beer. The world of barrel aged beers is really a fabulous one to venture, and I highly recommend it. Cheers!