Barrel Aged Brews – Part I: Oakshire Hellshire II
– Julia Crowley, EDN
Vanilla, cherries, molasses, figs, pumpkin, coffee, chocolate and caramel. As much as this appears to be a list of ingredients needed to prepare a holiday feast, they are actually just a few of the many flavor profiles found in barrel-aged brews. Because of these many distinctive flavors, the demand for barrel aged beers is on the rise and is a growing trend within the American craft and micro brewing industry.
Much like a high quality red wine, barrel aged beers have a longer shelf life, are more complex and tend to be more expensive than other beers. Aged beers also have a higher content of alcohol and are usually dark or sour. Since I love complex red wines that tend to impart the oak flavors that are acquired from aging in oak barrels, I was driven to experience the flavors of barrel aged brews, hoping that they, too, would be complex and contain flavors from the barrel used for aging. Having never tried a beer that was aged in a barrel, I decided to attend the release party for Oakshire Brewing Company’s bourbon barrel aged beer, Hellshire II.
After arriving at the Oakshire brewery, I was immediately impressed by the amount of people that were waiting in line to try this just-released micro brew. The line of beer enthusiasts came out of the tasting room, into the parking lot and almost past the fence that surrounds the brewery. I took a place in the line and watched as people came out with tasters, snifters, pints, bottles and cases of beer. The people in line around me talked about the release of the new beer, and more people than not were wearing Oakshire logo hats, T-shirts or sweatshirts. Once inside the bustling tasting room, I ordered a taster of the Hellshire II, which is barrel aged, and a taster of the Overcast Espresso Stout, which isn’t barrel aged.
Both of these beers were very dark brown, almost black, in color and the Espresso Stout had a light tan head while the Hellshire II had creamy brown head. The Espresso Stout is an oatmeal stout, which was brewed with beans from a Eugene coffee roaster, and the medium-bodied flavors definitely showcased the espresso beans along with a malty, chocolatey finish. The Hellshire II is an Imperial Stout that was aged in bourbon barrels for seven months. Initial flavors consisted of oak and bourbon with hints of vanilla, and finished with intense yet balanced coffee and caramel flavors. Of the two, I preferred the Hellshire II, and without hesitation, I bought my first ever wax-dipped, spooky-labeled, fifteen-dollar bottle of barrel aged beer.
Before departing, I met up with two of Oakshire’s ambassadors who gave a group tour of the brewery. Of the six people in the group, I was the only person that wasn’t a home brewer; I simply wanted to check out the digs that were used to create the impressive Hellshire II.
The tour began at the Oakshire silo that houses the two-row Canadian malt grain that is the base of most beers brewed at Oakshire. Ambassador Jacque Barton described the process of making the brew. From that silo, the grains are brought into the mill room by way of an auger system. During this “hot” side of the operation, the grain goes into a grist hopper and is made into what they call “mash.”
The mash then goes into another machine where they make the wort, add in hops and add flavors for that particular batch. From there it goes into a whirlpool tank where the movement of water forces the impurities to settle on the bottom.
At this point, the beer is too hot to add the yeast, so it goes through a cooling process. Cold water is pushed into a radiator, and as the hot beer passes by, the cold water cools the brew to about 70 degrees, and the water heats up in the process. Now hot, the water gets put into a water tank outside the brewery that can then be used for another brew cycle. Since the water quality in the Willamette Valley is excellent, the water doesn’t need to be filtered, and it can be used for a couple brew cycles.
Once the beer is cooled down, it’s moved to the “cold” side of the operation. Barton said this is “where all the magic happens.” This is when the yeast are added, and they start going to town by chomping on the sugar while producing carbon dioxide and alcohol — in other words, fermenting.
Once the yeast are done breaking the brew down, the beer is then moved to the bright tank where the beer sits for about 10 days, depending on beer style. After that, the beer it is pumped out from the top of the tank and can then be bottled.
For barrel aged beer, the beer goes into bourbon, whiskey or rum barrels, to name a few, and is aged for varying lengths of time.
Once we were in the room that housed the bright tanks, I noticed that the tanks all had different names. I learned from ambassador Dan Potts that the names on the tanks were given by investors. Instead of obtaining a bank loan for the very expensive tanks, which average somewhere around $75,000 per tank, the owners turned to investors, and these investors, which included friends and family, were invited to name the tanks that they helped purchase.
After my experience at Oakshire’s release of the Hellshire II, it’s easy to understand why the popularity of barrel aged beer is on the rise. With the unique vanilla, caramel and coffee flavors that I discovered in my first-ever tasting of a barrel aged beer, I’ve decided to delve into the world of these diverse micro brews and share my learning and tasting experiences with you through a series of Barrel Aged Brews articles, right here on Eugene Daily News. Cheers!