The saying “Out with the old, in with the new” is frequently heard around the new year, a time when people discard the past 12 months in preparation for the next 12. At several local breweries, brewers have embraced both the old and the new with special year-end releases of limited barrel-aged beers.
Storing beer in wooden barrels is an age-old practice that has been taken up by American craft brewers only in the past two decades. Historically, barrels were used because they were the material available for storage, transportation and dispensation. For American brewers, the wooden vessels have become an ingredient as much as a process, a method to additionally season and accent a beer with unique flavors.
To that end, barrels that previously held spirits are the most common, but used wine barrels have also become increasingly popular. These barrels tend to impart strong, pronounced aromas and flavors, so breweries typically brew robust and high-gravity beers that can withstand and complement these characteristics. It’s no accident that many of these styles are imperial stouts, barleywines and Belgian-style strong ales, all of which stand up well to the aging process.
Worthy Brewing released a special barrel-aged version of their Dark Muse Imperial Stout in mid-December. The brewery filled a dozen Wild Turkey bourbon barrels with their 2014 batch of Dark Muse and set them aside to age over the past two years. They then blended it with a freshly brewed batch of Dark Muse — which comes out this month — at a ratio of 60 percent barrel aged and 40 percent fresh beer.
“This is our biggest creation,” said head brewer Dustin Kellner, quoted in the company’s blog post about the release. “The passage of time and the lingering bourbon amped up the ABV to 11.3 percent, and yet the beer retains that silky smooth drinkability.”
The brewery provided me with a bottle of the special beer, one from just 60 cases (720 bottles) that were produced. Each was hand-dipped in gold wax for a festive appearance. Inside the bottle is a rich and smooth dessert beer loaded with aromas of oak, vanilla, chocolate and bourbon. It showcases dark chocolate with a bit of boozy heat, and sweet and oaky notes of vanilla and licorice.
Kellner’s comments about “silky smooth drinkability” are spot on; after the initial booziness, I found that as the Dark Muse warmed it developed a very smooth and subtle mouthfeel and an almost creamy roastiness.
Silver Moon Brewing released a 2014 vintage beer aged in bourbon barrels as well: Demolition Man Bourbon Barrel Aged American Strong Ale. This beer was matured in Oregon Spirit Distillers C.W. Irwin bourbon barrels for three to four months, then allowed to age in kegs to mellow. “Those fresh barrels impart a ton of flavor very quickly,” Jeff Schauland, head brewer, said. They bottled the beer in a very limited run of 14 cases, available only at Silver Moon’s Bend pub.
The base beer is a strong, dark red ale infused with characteristics of dark fruit and complex layers of toffee-like malts with a generous hop backing. The finished ale has a fairly pronounced bourbon-on-wood flavor profile and vanilla nose.
No discussion of local barrel-aged beers would be complete without considering Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss. This imperial stout always has a portion that is aged in barrels and blended back in with a fresh, un-aged batch. For their 2016 edition, released several weeks ago, 50 percent of the beer was aged in a “barrel blend,” consisting of bourbon, new Oregon oak and pinot noir wine barrels.
The Abyss is one of the most highly sought after beers in the company’s portfolio. For the second year in a row, Deschutes has upped the ante by releasing two variant versions of The Abyss, each aged 100 percent in two different types of barrels: Scotch and brandy. (Last year’s variants utilized rye whiskey and cognac barrels.)
As you would expect, these variant versions taste markedly different from the base beer. The Scotch Abyss is the more subtle of the two, incorporating a slightly sweet peat malt note that is earthy and rich. The Brandy Abyss extracted an extra percentage point of alcohol from the barrels and exudes a similar vinous, warming character as the distilled wine spirit, with a distinctive “eau de vie” quality that pops on the tongue.
The beginning of a new year is a terrific time to try some new (aged) beers, and these barrel-aged treats from Worthy, Silver Moon, and Deschutes ring in 2017 in robust style.
—Jon Abernathy is a local beer blogger and brew aficionado. His column appears in GO! every other week.