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Good Libations: Roll out the barrel of bourbon-finished brews
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
I remember when I was a kid my grandmother commenting as she served me the pork concoction scrapple, “They use every part of the pig except the squeal!” A similar statement could be made about the bourbon-making process. Leftover mash is converted into livestock feed, and the charred oak barrels — once they have imparted their toasty, vanilla notes to the spirit — are shipped to Spain to age sherry, Scotland for Scotch production, Mexico for tequila and, nowadays, various locations in the United States to finish off beer.
Beer has been brewed since ancient times, and over the years brewers have sought unique and unusual seasonings. Ancient Sumerians fermented beer from bread and seasoned it with aromatic components such as skirrit weed, which is a licorice-flavored plant, and Assyrian root, a type of radish. Brewers experimented with heather, juniper berries and other spices before they discovered hop cones with their bitter resins and antimicrobial qualities.
Modern craft brewers are a creative bunch, and it is difficult to find a seasoning component that has not been tried in a beer by somebody. That includes aging the beer in barrels that previously contained bourbon.
Bourbon regulations stipulate that only new barrels can be used, so there are plenty left after the process. The staves are cut from selected Kentucky white oak trees that are more than 100 years old. The trees are harvested during autumn and winter when the sap has subsided and are cut into tapered staves and a circular head for each end. These parts are dried outdoors where sun, wind and rain weather the wood for 18 months to two years. The staves are sprayed with water and formed around an open flame that chars the inside. The fire helps the cooper bend the staves and pound a succession of hoops around the barrel to form a tight seal.
Bourbon begins as a fiery, clear liquid emanating from the still with alcohol as high as 65 percent. The liquid is placed into the 53-gallon barrels for a minimum of four years. Because of the fluctuations in temperature in Kentucky, the bourbon in the barrels expands and contracts over time, pushing into the grain of the wood and then drawing back out, along with essences of caramel, vanilla, smoke and an amber color. When brewers use these spent barrels later, the same characteristics are imparted into the brew. Though some brewing purists feel that a bourbon barrel is no place for beer, barrels definitely add another layer of rich flavors to dark brews.
Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery is generally credited with producing the first bourbon barrel aged stout more than 18 years ago. Goose Island began in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area in 1988 as a tiny pub called Clybourn. The brewery produced good quality products over the years and grew in size. In 2011, the firm was acquired by beverage behemoth InBev, the parent company of Budweiser. Goose Island uses barrels that previously contained very high-end bourbon such as Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old and Pappy Van Winkle.
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout spends extended time in the barrels where intense flavors of charred oak, chocolate and vanilla are imbued into the brew. The potent potable weighs in at 14.5 percent alcohol and won a gold medal in 2006 in the World Beer Cup competition.
I was able to find a few bourbon-finished beers locally. You may want to try one with dessert after you finish your scrapple.
Gordon’s picks for bourbon barrel brews
*Prices and availability may vary
Bluegrass Brewing Bourbon Barrel Stout
Bluegrass brewed its first rendition of this elixir in December 2005. The brew has a dark, opaque, molasses color and a thick, creamy, tan head. Aromas of espresso, dark chocolate and vanilla predominate. The brew is rich and almost sweet on the palate, reminiscent of a mocha milkshake. The brew warms and satisfies. Try it with a chocolate brownie for dessert. 8.6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV ). $11/four-pack
The brewery derives its unusual name from Smuttynose Island, third in an archipelago off the coast of New Hampshire. Its logo features a common harbor seal, a resident of the island. The island is infamous for the brutal ax murder of two Norwegian women in 1873. The brew is more uplifting. Zinneke is what dogs are called in Brussels. It is brewed with Belgian yeast and dark malt, and then partially aged in used bourbon barrels. The beer has a dark, opaque color, tan head, and aromas of vanilla and cocoa. It is velvety on the palate with notes of chocolate, cocoa, vanilla and bourbon. Try it with pecan pie. 8.4 percent ABV $7/22-oz. bottle
Williamsburg Alewerks Bourbon Barrel Porter
Williamsburg Alewerks is located in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg and uses the Peter Austin brewing system. Round tanks are constructed of brick and are direct-fired instead of steam-heated as is common in commercial breweries. Brewmaster Geoff Logan ages the porter in barrels that previously contained Virginia Gentleman Bourbon. The brew has a dark toffee color and a thick, tan head. The aromas of dark chocolate lead to a rich and succulent palate that can best be described as a liquid dark chocolate truffle. Serve with French vanilla ice cream. 9 percent ABV $8/22-oz. bottle
Blue Mountain Barrel House Dark Hollow
Arrington, Nelson County, Va.
Brewmaster Taylor Smack apprenticed beer making in Chicago under the instruction of Goose Island’s master brewer who pioneered bourbon barrel-aged brews. The brewer uses barrels from Makers Mark, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey. The beer pours like liquid tar and has a bit of yeast in the bottom of the bottle because it was bottled with live beer for bottle fermentation. The opulent palate features bitter dark chocolate flavors and a touch of charred oak. I think it would be good with carrot cake. 10 percent ABV $11/750-ml. wired stopper bottle
Gordon Kendall’s column on wine and spirits runs monthly in Extra.
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