Barrel-aged beer is everywhere today. Most established breweries have a barrel-aging program; even some new breweries have some beers sitting in barrels, waiting to be released as their first. With at least one barrel-aged beer on most every bar tap list, how is one supposed to decide what they like in a barrel-aged beer?
To answer that, Beer Shop in Oak Park held an event in their “BeerShop Class” series focusing on barrel-aged beers (previous classes have featured German and Belgian beers). Led by Tom Smillie, a Certified Cicerone and Craft Beer Specialist at Wirtz Beverage Company, the class informed the participants on what barrel aging is, what effect it has on each beer, and what taste characteristics come from the different barrels. Through the hour-long class, Tom led participants in tasting Seattle Cider Co.’s Oaked Maple, Allagash’s Interlude, Almanac’s Wakatu Sour, and Vliegende Paard Brouwers’ Prearis Grand Cru 2013 aged in Remy Martin Cognac barrels.
Tom first started off by introducing the concept of barrel-aging and a brief history of it, including using barrels to transport India Pale Ales from England to India in the mid-18th century. He then explained what brewers do to prepare the newly received barrel for any beer they might add to it, listing some of the various ways different brewers clean them out and supplying a tap handle made from a barrel stave to pass around to see the char that resides on the inside of the barrel.
Having just completed my FoBAB session the night before, and therefore having my fill of barrel-aged anything, the Seattle Cider Co.’s Oaked Maple was the perfect start to the tasting. Refreshing and sweet, this 6.9% ABV put me in the mood to continue with the other beers. Having been aged on oak chips, Tom discussed what oak chips were, how they were used, why it’s a cheaper alternative to actual barrel aging, and providing his personal example of wood chips soaking in Woodford Reserve whiskey for 5 years to look at.
Allagash’s Interlude was up next. A much more complex beer, this American Wild Ale was brewed with two different yeast strains – a Belgian farmhouse strain and a house strain of Brettanomyces – and then a portion aged in French Merlot and Syrah oak barrels. Since the class was only an hour, Tom pivoted away from talking about Brettanomyces in-depth (which could last a long time) and instead discussed the effect of wine barrels on a base beer, including the tannins and sweetness. He then went on to talk about the purpose of blending, especially when it comes to barrel-aged beers, and those with sour cultures in particular.
Since Tom was so thorough with the introduction and the first two beers and the hour was nearing its completion, the last two beers – Almanac’s Wakatu Sour and Vliegende Paard Brouwers’ Prearis Grand Cru 2013 – was little in the way of explanation and more about seeing if any participants had any questions, but there was a brief conversation about what dry-hopping did to a barrel-aged sour (which, in my opinion, made it very yogurty).
Adding to the event was the venue itself. Beer Shop opened this past April in Oak Park, right where the Oak Park Microbrew Review took place (actually behind the Replicale tents, and I completely missed it when I attended). Intimate with a bucolic environment (minus the three TVs over the bar), Beer Shop provided a lovely ambiance to the proceedings. Wood flooring and tables, a few stray barrels, a wood Chicago flag sign, and an open space for the sun to shine in made it a lovely Sunday afternoon to have – and learn about – a few barrel aged beers. Owner Tony Compaglia is originally from San Francisco and said he modeled his store’s concept after the amazing City Beer Store there, which is a valid comparison. (He’s also looking into taking Bitcoins – you know, the one used primarily by Silk Road – as a form of payment, saying there’s a bit of overlap between craft beer drinkers and computer programmers, the main users of bitcoins.)
So was it worth the $30? Considering you got a flight of 4 barrel-aged beers, snacks provided by Carnivore, and free swag at the end consisting of at least a shirt, snifter, and key-chain bottle opener, I would say it was. While this is geared toward the new-to-beer or novice drinker, I managed to learn a few nuggets of information and would highly suggest attending one.
And, in true ABV Chicago fashion, arbitrary rankings!
1. Seattle Cider’s Oaked Maple – Sweet with a nice dry finish. Most likely influenced by my previous night of FoBAB-ing, I could have easily downed two pints of this, let alone my 4 oz pour, which I had to hold off on to take some of the pictures.
2. Allagash’s Interlude – Very complex, with a ton going on. Everything plays off each other well, from the two Brett strains to the two oak barrels. Plum, apricot, and some graham crackers made way for a very dry finish.
3. Vliegende Paard Brouwers’ Prearis Grand Cru 2013 – By this point – fourth beer at the event and post-FoBAB – I was done. A nice beer, but a little too much acidity going on for me.
4. Almanac Wakatu Sour – Damn that yogurt taste. Made it very difficult to finish.