–Julia Crowley, EDN
My first visit to what is now one of my favorite beer and wine shops, 16 Tons, was for a tasting of an Oregon Pinot Noir. But what really caught my attention when I arrived, was the many colorful and eye-catching beer bottles that lined the walls. Co-owner of Sixteen Tons, Mike Coplin, knew I was there for the wine tasting, but could see I was far more interested in the abounding brews that resembled pieces of art.
Coplin immediately started to talk in detail about some of the beers that had caught my attention, but the phrases that widened my eyes were, “Burgundy’s of Belgium”, “the most ‘wine-like’ of all beers”, “common flavors of raspberry, plum, and spice”, “some aged in Chardonnay oak barrels”, and “tannins”.
Because of these unique characteristics, along with the funky, eye-catching labels, I was urged to give barrel aged brews a try. My first-ever taste of a barrel aged beer, which was aged in bourbon barrels, was the recently released Hellshire II from Oakshire Brewing. The inescapable flavors of bourbon, vanilla, coffee and caramel immediately intrigued me, and I was entirely stoked to taste more of these delicious aged brews.
My mission to discover more of these highly flavorful beers led me to the Second Annual Winter and Strong Ale Festival at 16 Tons. With a list of over seventy winter and strong ales, many of which were barrel aged, I was ready to begin my quest.
I started with a brandy barrel aged beer, Block 15 Figgy Pudding, and an oak barrel aged beer, Uinta Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale. Not knowing which was which once I sat down, I simply tasted one of them and immediately knew it was the Block 15 Figgy Pudding. Dark brown in color, this beer had big fig and molasses flavors that were followed by a little cinnamon and nutmeg, which wholly showcased exactly what it was brewed with: molasses, fig and spices. Block 15 Brewery is located in Corvallis, and this Holiday ale was surprisingly light, yet packed with flavor, and I loved it. As soon as I tasted the Uinta Jacked Pumpkin Ale, flavors of pumpkin spice abounded. Brewed with fresh pumpkin and fall spices, then aged in oak barrels for six months, this beer out of Utah was extremely drinkable and piquant.
The next two samples I ordered were wine barrel aged: Hitachino Nest Aged Commemorative Ale out of Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery and Cascade Sang Royal (Project 2009) out of Portland, Oregon. The Hitachino was aged in Pinot Noir and Whiskey barrels from Ransom Winery and Distillery in Sheridan, Oregon, and was really spicy! With seasonal flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, and a thankful tiny hint of banana, the finish was actually kind of dry and bitter. Regardless, I liked it because the spiciness really caught me off guard. The Cascade Sang Royal was aged for six months with Cabernet grapes in an oak barrel and then fermented on Bing Cherries. It’s a Sour Ale with an intense finish and an outstanding cherry and sour apple taste. Surprisingly, I didn’t get any of the Cabernet flavors, but it was still loaded with zest and palatable essences that I really enjoyed.
Out of the first four tasted, the Block 15 Figgy Pudding was what I was most impressed with, so I decided to try their other barrel aged brew, Imagine. Imagine has a limited production of just 40 cases every other year, so with its November 2011 release, I was looking forward to trying this Belgian Triple Stout which was aged in bourbon barrels for nine and twenty-one months. The deep black color of this beer intimidated me at first, I was expecting an overly hoppy and bitter beer; however, the coffee, caramel and dark chocolate flavors created a smooth and toned down bitterness that was actually quite savory. Once again, I was unquestionably enjoying a Block 15 brew.
Another chocolatey, coffee tasting beer that I sampled was the Nectar Ales Black Xantus from Paso Robles, California. The brew was actually aged in American oak barrels and infused with fresh organic coffee from Joebella Coffee Roasters, also out of California. Much like the Block 15 Imagine, this had rich dark chocolate, coffee and caramel flavors with a slight aroma of bourbon. It too, was very tasty.
Although the next two beers that I tasted were not barrel aged, their descriptions lured me into ordering a sample each of the Unconventionale from Ninkasi and Nate’s Porcini Scotch Ale from the Eugene based Rogue Pub and Brewery at Track Town Ales. Ninkasi’s Unconventionale is definitely unconventional. Brewed with lavender, tarragon and heather, this creamy Imperial Stout definitely showcased its herbal components, including a tiny bit of mint and cocoa on the finish. Nate’s Porcini Scotch Ale was really malty, really mushroomy and really good. It was brewed by Nate Sampson specifically for Eugene’s Mushroom Madness Week, which celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum Mushroom Festival.
The last barrel aged brew that I tasted at the Winter and Strong Ale Festival was the highly anticipated, by me, Firestone Walker 14. Firestone Walker Brewing Company is located in the world renowned wine region of Paso Robles, California. Firestone Walker 14 is a barrel aged blend of beer that was created jointly by brewers and winemakers in the Paso Robles region. Each pint of Firestone Walker 14 is sold in its own box, and inside that box, Firestone Walker’s brewmaster, Matt Brynildson, included a full description of each winemakers and brewers involvement in the making of this one-of-a-kind blended beer. This is the most flavor-packed beer I’ve ever tried: brown sugar, maple syrup, dark chocolate, cherry and coffee flourished. This being the biggest and most complex beer of the evening, I was truly impressed, and I ultimately realized that incredible similarities, like intense flavor profiles, are held between aged beer and aged wine.
Obviously intrigued by the world of barrel aged craft brews, I’ll continue to tantalize my taste buds as I sample the many different varieties of barrel aged brews; in fact, I’ll be heading over to Bier Stein on Tuesday, December 13, for the Firestone Walker Partial Tap Takeover and 15th Anniversary Celebration. Six different Firestone Walker brews will be available of tap including the Firestone Walker 15, and I can’t wait to experience the flavors that will undoubtedly be unlocked when the tap is tilted and the brew is flowing.
For a full description of the official blend information of Firestone Walker 14, click here.