Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Back to the Future With Barrel Aged Beer

By William Brand
Wednesday, November 8th, 2006 at 7:33 pm in Uncategorized.

This column ran in the Oakland Tribune and other ANG newspapes on May 10, 2006. I’m including it for more background on barrel-aged beers. b

By William Brand

A LONG, LONG TIME AGO, I had the dubious distinction of spending some time, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, at Guantanamo Bay, a scorching spit of sand and coral at the southeastern tip of Cuba, much in the news these days.

The only escape then was the bar; trouble was the selection was limited to rum and an American-made ersatz Scotch. It’s only claim to distinction was it was aged in stainless steel vats, not in time-tested wooden barrels.

It was vile stuff, but people liked it because it was “modern.”

The same thing happened to beer. Fermenting beer in wooden barrels became anathema to brewing scientists. Wood can harbor all kinds of unclean, unwanted things, like bacteria, exotic wild yeast.  Stainless steel is clean and each batch emerges exactly like the last.

If you’re making Budweiser, that’s important.

But what if you’re a craft brewer, making at best a few thousand barrels of beer a year, most of it a string of regulars, an amber, a pale ale, a wheat. What does one do for creativity?

One answer for many craft brewers these days is wood. Create a recipe, ferment it the regular way, in stainless – then put the beer in wooden barrels with fresh yeast for a second fermentation. It’s the way all beer once was made.

Here’s a brief list:

Schooner’s Grille & Brewery, 4250 Lone Tree Way, Antioch. Co-founder Shawn Burns and his brew crew have been experimenting with wood fermentations for several years. They won silver for Olde Woody in the Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer category at the Brewers Association World Beer Cup in Seattle last month. They finished second to the stupendous Bourbon County Stout, from Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago. It’s a stout aged in bourbon barrels.

Burns explains Olde Woody was aged in new oak wine barrels that had been sloshed with Scotch whiskey. “Wood softens the beer, just like it softens wine,” Burns said. “You pick up vanilla from the wood, the Scotch from the pre-soaking.”

Woody’s gone now, but Schooner’s has bottles of Scotch Ale, a 7 percenter, aged seven months in Scotch whiskey-soaked oak barrels on sale at the pub now, $5.50 for a 22-ounce bottle.

–  Drake’s Brewing, 1933 Davis St. #177, San Leandro. Rodger Davis, head brewer has been using wood for several years. Rodger and his assistant, Melissa Myers, use a variety of barrels.
* Drake’s Anniversary Lager, is a 13.7 percent alcohol by volume, very strong beer, aged in a bourbon barrel for 10 months. $6.99, 6-oz. bottle.

* Drake’s Jolly Rodger Scotch Ale was aged in barrels for 18 months. It’s 11.1 percent ABV. 6 oz. $6.99.

* Drake’s 2003 Jolly Rodger can still be found. It was aged in brandy barrels for two years; 11 percent, 6.99 for a 12-oz bottle.

Marin Brewing, 1809 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur.  Head brewer Arne Johnson is another wood-adventurer. He’s just produced a barrel-aged version of  his Starbrew Wheat Wine, a strong wheat beer, that was aged in old Chardonnay wine barrels.

“My friend bought a winery and there were these old Chardonnay barrels that had been sitting there for 15 years,” Johnson said. “The wine inside was oxidized, so I took out the wine, threw my Wheat wine in; I left the dregs in the barrels and let them sit for a few months.
“It tastes pretty interesting. I’m going to let it sit there a bit longer, then sell it at the bar,” he said.

He also has a Belgian Trappist-style quadrupel, another very strong beer, aging in old bourbon barrels. A stout’s now aging in Old Fitzgerald whiskey barrels, he previously used to age his barley wine.

Johnson also had a porter, aged in old pinot noir barrels that had been used by a distillery to make a chocolate aperitif. “I left the sludge from the cocoa in the barrels. It made the porter pretty interesting,” he said.

Bottom line at Marin. There’s almost always something barrel aged available, either in bottles or on tap. Bottles sold to take home usually cost around $10, Johnson says.

This list is necessarily short. I’ve left off some major players in the barrel-aged business, including Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, and Dave McLean at Magnolia in San Francisco among many, many others.

The idea has spread widely and Vic Kralj, co-proprietor of The Bistro, 1001 B. St., Hayward, is planning a barrel-aged beer festival for Saturday, Nov. 11. There will be three categories, beers aged in whiskey, port, sherry or Madeira barrels or aged in wine barrels. “There are just a lot of brewers making barrel-aged beer,” Vic says. “I thought we might have a little party at The Bistro and bring them all together so people could sample them.”

He’s expecting 30 to 40 beers. Stay tuned.

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