Appreciating Old Age
Expertly bound in an oiled cloth for at least a year, sheep cheddar packs a piquant punch and delivers a full-flavoured bite. Prosciutto di Parma carefully cured for up to 18 months makes a sweet and delicately salty appetizer. A vigorous Syrah peaks at about 10 to 15 months after release, displaying exotic flavours such as leather and truffle. Careful aging enhances the taste of favoured foods and adds value to ordinary offerings.
Aging beer in oak creates a new layer of complexity, capitalizing on the aromas of spirits or wines previously inhabiting a barrel. However, not all beers are meant to mature, especially hop-forward varieties. Beers such as barleywines, stouts, bocks and sour Belgians, those with strong malt characters that will not be overpowered by the oak, are recommended for barrel aging.
a marriage of malts
Central City Brewing Company from Surrey, BC, took the Canadian Brewery of the Year award for the second time last June. Brew master Gary Lohin and Central City Brewing president Darryll Frost also received three gold medals, including one for Thor’s Hammer Bourbon Barrel Aged Barley Wine. Lohin has been brewing Thor’s Hammer since 1998 and knows what it takes to make a great beer. As he said, “At Central City we are a little anal about what we do. We don’t cut corners on any process. We are not shy about spending money on ingredients to make the best beer.”
Lohin described Thor’s Hammer as a niche beer, created by a brewery to demonstrate excellence, but not a production beer. As he said, “You have to produce this with your pale ales and lagers. We are trying to push a higher-end craft almost treating beer like wine.”
The winning beer was brewed in February 2011 using eight or nine different coloured barley malts and a bit of molasses and two 500-litre bourbon barrels. By law, bourbon must be aged in new barrels to allow for the infusion of vanilla and caramel characters. According to Lohin, this requirement means that used bourbon barrels come cheap. He adds twice the amount of barley used in regular beers to boost the level of fermentation and the alcohol content to 11 per cent.
The brew spent eight months in stainless steel fermenters and another 10 months in bourbon barrels to allow the aromas to comingle. A sampling after six or seven months helped Lohin control the amount of barrel tannin. “That’s where the artisan part comes in. It’s almost like blending and tasting, and you have to know when your product is ready or you risk overcooking, like with eggs,” explained Lohin. He used another food analogy to describe the blending process. “When you put chilli away for five days and you take it out and reheat it again it tastes much better. It takes the flavours all that time to marry during the maturation process. When we release the beer, you’re getting a beer very close to how it’s supposed to be drunk.” Lohin remarked proudly on the age of the beer, “It’s very hard to find a beer that is over a year old on any shelf anywhere.”
Lohin characterized Thor’s Hammer Bourbon Barrel Aged Barley Wine as “your stereotypical after dinner or in front of a fire reading a book drink.” The full-bodied, fruity complex beer has hints of dried fruit including prunes, as well as plums and walnuts, and is perfect for fall or winter as a dessert beer along with cheesecakes, pastries and candied fruits. Lohin suggested placing the beer into a snifter or goblet, leaving it in the fridge for about 20 minutes and serving it almost like a port — not cold or warm but somewhere in between.
When BC brewer Jack Bensley couldn’t find wheat wine ale in Canada, he crafted a hopped-up wheat-style barleywine aged in 10 Jack Daniel’s barrels using strisselspalt hops from France’s Alsace Region. “We decided to go crazy and not only brew a style of beer we never brewed before but use hops we’d never used before in our first barrel-aged beer,” remarked Bensley. He explained that “wheat wine is a North American creation that can be either hop or malt forward. Ours is 10 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume) but is very hoppy and quite bitter at 70 BU (international bittering units). It’s very different than an English-style barleywine.”
Sales of the beer were brisk. “All of the beer was pre-sold to liquor stores and restaurants. It was gone from the brewery the day it was released. Stores were fighting for cases,” said Bensley. The hoppy Nectar of the Gods Wheat Wine Ale by Russell Brewing won a silver medal at the 2012 Canadian Brewing Awards in the Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Beer category.
Bensley talked about the challenges of brewing Nectar of the Gods. “Our brew house is not really designed for doing big beers. It was a bit of an adventure in that we had to do two mashes to get nearly a full brew kettle of the alcohol we wanted.” The brew is made with 50 per cent Canadian wheat malt, plus pilsner and Munich malts with a big addition of hops for flavouring. It is then finished in the brew kettle. After fermentation in standard tanks, the ale is aged for seven or eight months in barrels and is bottle conditioned for two months to create carbonation and a fine mousse head.
The Jack Daniel’s barrels lend a bourbon and woody-vanilla flavour to the ale, and the strisselspalt hops account for the black current aroma. With 50 per cent wheat malt, the beer can be served all year round and is best paired with strong cheeses. This hopped-up version of barleywine is relatively light despite having 10 per cent alcohol and can be enjoyed after dinner. According to Bensley, “It’s strong. You certainly want to be careful with a 10 per cent beer.”
Sixty freshly emptied Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Jack Daniel’s barrels stacked neatly against a wall at Amsterdam Brewery make up an ambitious barrel-aging program. As part of the program, last March head brewer Iain McOustra and Eric Ecclestone of the Biergotter Homebrew Club collaborated on a single-barrel release that sold out in six hours. The new brew, Sleeping Giant Barley Wine, spent three and a half months in dripping-wet 220-litre Jack Daniel’s barrels from the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. According to McOustra, the name Sleeping Giant fits the description of this “large beer (10.7 per cent ABV) that is deceptively smooth and sneaks up on you quickly and puts you to sleep fast.” He also explained that Sleeping Giant is the name of his and Ecclestone’s favourite track from an album by Mastodon.
McOustra mentioned that he builds beer recipes with specific barrels in mind. For example, he has experimented with adding golden ale to Pinot Noir barrels to impart a tannic edge to the brew. “The barrel should complement the beer. It’s important to be aware of what a barrel will do for the beer,” he said. According to McOustra, the barrel shouldn’t overpower a beer but should “complement the flavours of the original beer while adding depth and complexity. He is pleased to have so many high-quality barrels available to his brewery. “The freshness and quality do translate to the finished beer,” he said.
Sleeping Giant is an English barleywine unlike the hop-forward US version. The beer is made with English ingredients including a huge amount of barley malt and brown sugar with very light hopping. The brown sugar is boiled down for one and a half hours to add a deep base note and is added during the boil to bump up the alcohol content. After fermentation in steel vessels, the barleywine displays lots of fruit notes from the malt and maple sweetness from the brown sugar. The Jack Daniel’s barrels add oak and whiskey characters and a hint of toasted coconut, a twist on the British style of beer. The result is a caramel-coloured, very smooth, light, big beer with a thin head and a creamy smooth mouthfeel. Sleeping Giant is a special occasion beer for sharing with friends after dinner.
McOustra will be brewing Sleeping Giant again this fall and aging it in Pinot Noir, bourbon and whiskey barrels to experiment with different flavour profiles.