Monday, 8 October 2007

Feeling the Wood

Wood aged beer, it might not sound too revolutionary given Britain's history of cask conditioned beer.

But a recent event I attended raised a lot of interesting issues and innovations surrounding this subject, and it's a production method I believe will shape a whole new beer category in the UK over the years to come.

Now, interestingly, we are quite far behind the Americans in this - as they already have whole wood-aged beer festivals - but given their existing and thriving wine and bourbon industrythey have a few more old oak containers kicking around not doing much, apart from waiting for some enterprising spark to pick them up and age other booze in them. One of the reasons being that you can only use bourbon barrels once apparently.

But availability of old casks aside, what's really interesting is the difference you can impart into the same beer by the use of different barrels that have had spirit or fortified wine products in them.

This was demonstrated at this seminar, which was kindly hosted by Thornbridge Brewery at the beautiful Thornbridge Hall, not only by Fuller's but by the hosts themselves.

We had a taste of their St Peter's Imperial Russian Stout which had been finished in three different whisky barrels from Speyside (8.8%), the Highland (9.4%) and Islay (10.2%) - I'll avoid naming the whisky brands for now, as I think it's a potentially touchy subject, but suffice to say they were enormous in ABV and flavour, particularly the Islay one, which a bit too TCP for my tastes but the other two were absolutely superb!

Unfortunately I'm being a bit of a tease because Fuller's is having issues with Customs about this issue and Thornbridge may only release a limited number of their aged St Peter's - but if you can get your hands on some then for goodness sake do.

14 comments:

Abbey Stores said...

I have never been impressed with wooded beers in the past - the Innis & Gunn example for instance I felt was far too woody. However, an Imperial Stout must be a different beast. Any ideas how to get hold of some?

Melissa Cole said...

I understand the Americans are up to a lot - and there might be some imports that you can get hold of which I'll be looking into and keep you posted. The Thornbridge version you'll have to go straight to the brewery for, the link is in the article for their site. Good luck!

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

I came across Full Sail Black Gold Imperial Stout Bourbon Barrel Aged while judging earlyer this year, it was pretty good. What I like about Innis and Gunn is that there is no spirit its just wood, sometime when spirit is left in the barrel the beer gets abit hot. Thus happens with the barrel aged beers produced here, Emerson Bourbon Porter and Wiskey Stout.

Sid Boggle said...

J W Lees do their Harvest Ale in wooden pins, but it all seems to be for export - I've only ever seen it in NYC.

If you visit Fullers and do the tour, they will tantalisingly show you the wooden tuns sitting near the bottling plant, which can't be touched while HMRC and Fullers try to sort out whether it's 'beer' or 'spirit', and whether Fullers is a brewer and distiller, which apparently is illegal in England since the 18th century to protect the Scottish whisky industry... You can be one or the other, but not both.

Melissa Cole said...

Yeah, the whole distiller/brewer and not on the same land issue was raised on the day, which I have to say I didn't know before.

The reason I didn't include it, and also why I quite often don't include a lot of stuff I learn on these sorts of things is that when you're immersed in something professionally you can get bogged down in too much nerdy detail, which I worry will bore people if I put it all in such an informal medium as this blog!

For example there was a whole lecture on the historic legislation and issues surrounding grogging (adding spirit to other forms of alcohol to evade duty basically) which is part of the problem with using old spirit barrels to age beer - you have to ensure that there is absolutely no spirit left in them to taint the beer (part of the issue Fuller's is having with HMRC funnily enough!).

So I apologise for leaving out such interesting and pertinent information and thanks for mentioning it - it gives me a bit better gauge of what people do and don't want to hear!

Stonch said...

In all honesty Melissa I think the nerdy detail is precisely what people read blogs for! That, and debating the beer equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Glossed over accounts are more suitable for the published stuff, I should think.

Melissa Cole said...

a good present well pointed Stonch!!

MicMac said...

of course, Stonch, a pin is a 4.5gal cask, so even a few portly little cherubs could probably have a wee jig on the top of one ;~)

As to the brewer/distiller on the same site issue - why would that be a problem? - aren't Fullers et al merely adding largely beer to someone else's drop of whisky (rather than them doing any actually distillation?)

Seems an out-moded legal situation anyway - why shouldn't a brewery be able to distil some of their beer, etc to make spirits. Dogfish Head (Delaware) & a few other US brewers have done just that.

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Bureaucracy Micmac , Bureaucracy . Its here in NZ, its alive and well in the States, and its an artform in the motherland.

Melissa Cole said...

I'm investigating this whole thing with customs - will let you know the outcome!

Paul of Suffolk said...

I've only ever tried Innis & Gunn, which is not a bad bottled beer. Not aged but much better is cask beer from the wood. I was amazed at how much more wonderful Old Perculiar was from the wood when I tried it.

MicMac said...

(in response to Paul of Suffolk) in the last year or so, I was really quite impressed with a couple of pints of OP in a local pub which has it on permanently, I was curious & poked my head into the ground-level cellar when the door was left ajar & there was a couple of oak casks (I doubt I would have guessed just from the flavour, but it was lovely stuff). Conversely I drink in another local pub which doesn't stock cask beer, but started serving bottled ales (happily now including my own) but one night I thought I'd have an OP nightcap, only to discover a thin, dry, fizzy, nasty-tasting brew - nothing like the luscious silky cask pints I had before. I know bottled & cask are rarely (never?) identical, but these were *so* different.

Melissa Cole said...

I don't think OP is bottle conditioned, which will make an enormous difference, but I agree I've had cask and bottled and won't be hurrying back to the bottle that's for sure!

Stonch said...

OP isn't bottle conditioned. It isn't a good beer in the bottle but is decent on cask if in good condition. In London the Museum Tavern always has it and it's usually quite fresh.