Barrel-Aged Beers Are Pricey. Which Ones Are Worth It?
A year ago, a second-hand bourbon or brandy barrel was running a brewer a hundred bucks on the American market. As of March 2011, the price hadn't changed, according to an industry source.
Alastair Bland Aged in wood: Mikkeller's Big Worse, left, with Paradox Macallan from BrewDog.
But the beers that go into these casks, spend a few months there, and leave in fancy bottles are more expensive than ever. A recent stop at City Beer Store (1168 Folsom, at Eighth St.) found North Coast Brewing Company's bourbon barrel-aged Old Stock Ale priced $24.99 for a 16.9-ounce ceramic bottle ― that's $25 a pint. And an 11.2-ounce bottle of BrewDog's Paradox Macallan, aged in sherry barrels, was listed at $14.99. Brewers may say these beers are costly to make, that they must sit in a barrel and take up precious basement space for half a year or more before they can be set loose.
This blogger is skeptical. What does it cost to stash a barrel in the corner, anyway? Still, we doled out some cash for a few of these beers. Okay, so we're not happy that these brews now cost twice what they did two years ago.
So why do we put up with it?
Take a whiff from your wine glass (no, we haven't purchased a set of snifters), have a sip, and you'll see. The flavors that develop when beer is aged in booze-soaked oak are stunning. Bitter, harsh stouts can turn seductive and smooth as silk, and sweet, malty barleywines emerge tasting like vanilla and coconut.
SFoodie's three-man tasting and review (conducted blind) observed several such expected nuances. It also revealed surprises. Take Mikkeller's Big Worse ($15.99/16.9 ounces), a 12-percent ABV barleywine that spent four months in bourbon barrels. Beneath its healthy cap of foam, the beer glowed a ruby, reddish gold. It smelled surprisingly tart, fruity, and acidic ― not like most barleywines we know, liquor-barreled or not. Behind the bright and zesty fruit lurked a hot booziness. In the mouth, the expected oak, vanilla, and whiskey flavors were only faintly present ― yet the beer was surprisingly dry and refreshing. For panelist Andrew, a work-at-home film and video editor, the Big Worse was "the beer I'd want if I was on a hot beach in Mexico" without a yellow lager.
His fellow tasters observed that they would like to be on a hot beach in Mexico without any yellow lager ― but certainly not with Brewdog's Paradox Macallan ($14.99/11.2 ounces), the one imperial stout in our lineup. It showed less of the 1987 Macallan sherry cask than we were anticipating, but it wasn't a crisp, refreshing, "drinkability" that eclipsed the vanilla, oak, and butter. Rather, the beer's imperial stout qualities dominated in spite of the barrel treatment. The 10-percent ABV Paradox smelled potently of chocolate, smoke, coffee, and caramel. And while the booze effects were present ― including that coconut and vanilla ― we felt the flavors from the sherry barrels could not live up to their full potential in such an aggressive, burnt black beer.
On the other hand, oaky butter and booze scents billowed from Firestone Walker's Abacus ($15/22 ounces). Dark brown and lightly carbonated, it's a blend of barleywines that spent as long as a year each in their respective whiskey barrels ― the sum of brewer Matt Brynildson's labors were the panel's favorite in this tasting. We observed nut and butter aromas, faint caramel, and toffee. Abacus was almost overwhelmingly rich in the mouth, oozing with thick caramel, cream, and vanilla flavors. At 13 percent, It was big on alcohol, too.
Shmaltz's Vertical Jewbelation ($13/22 ounces) is also a blend of beers, each of the seven aged between one and four months in rye whiskey barrels. Deep, dark, and tawny in color, with a 10.5-percent ABV with an eighth-inch cap of foam on top, this miscellaneous brown ale was swarming with the delightful effects of boozy wood. Scents of dried fruits lurked in the darkness, too, along with inedibles like old leather furniture and dusty books gone unread for years in the parlor. Still, vanilla, coconut, and butter dominated, reminding us that, though liquor barrel-aged beers are often fantastic, they can be predictable.
One other thing to note: The light and flowery aromatic profile so essential to most beers vanishes almost entirely after time spent in liquor barrels. So we depart with the conclusion that, while boozy brews are a wonderful thing, we're not going to Mexico without a bottle full of hops.