Bourbon Beer Is King – And 5 Notable Examples

April 24 2013 - 9:00 AM

If you’re a fan of big beers, namely, the heavier varieties with large ABV’s, such as porters, stouts, barleywines, and those with alcohol volumes that touch double-digits, then there is a strong chance that you’re also a whiskey fan. That’s why the idea of marrying the two libations in bourbon-barrel-aged-beer matrimony became so popular.  ‘Till death do they part.  And everyone wants to be on the guest list.

Bourbon, with its bold flavors, impacting warmth and aroma, and absorbing impact on the drinker, is capable of elevating many types of beers.  Many, if not most, beers benefit from any type of barrel aging. Adding whiskey to the mix, plus the impact of a barrel’s whiskey-extracted wood elements, only heightens a beer’s complexity and enjoyment, imbuing it with new layers of flavors, aromas, and textures.

Barrel-aging is among the most artisanal of craft brewing sub-genres.  Breweries are pretty much expected to have barrel-aging programs to be recognized as among the elite in their craft.  Beer fans line up for hours and camp out overnight for 12 oz’ers or bombers of barrel-aged releases.  Brewers plan festivals around these beers’ release dates.  Some of these brews’ review scores at rating websites hit triple digits.  And barrel-aged beers are among the most heavily traded beers; the rarest and most-sought-after of these can net a trader almost any other beer, distillation, or even wine, in return.

While oak itself can do a beer wonders, the consensus has settled on bourbon-barrel aging as the premier expression of the style. Barrels drowned in distillery whiskey then used for housing beers play an essential role in creating brews that engage the beer drinker’s palate with three distinct elements: whiskey, wood, and beer. As bourbon aficionados know, once bourbon is ready for bottling, distillers discard the barrels forever.  Due to the barrels’ strong bourbon residue, and the tantalizing flavor potential of the wood, these wooden vessels maintain a high recycle value. Some are used for Scotch barreling.  Some are used as barbecue chips to imbue grilled meats with flavors and aromas. Brewers, especially, are in fierce competition to utilize the barrels.

Fermenting the original wort in these barrels can radically transform a beer from something simple and direct to complex and all-encompassing. Bourbon adds warmth, an enveloping aroma, and a booziness to these beers, while steeping them in flavors of caramel and liquid smoke. The oak’s tannins add flavors such as vanilla, coconut and nuttiness.  The confluence of these elements colors a beer with a new layer of flavors, and can soften harsher coffee, hops, astringent or acid profiles.

Of course, bourbon aging has its detractors within the beer community. One complaint is that bourbon improperly overwhelms some beers because the bourbon-aging effects typically dominate the final mix. Some beers are simply not meant for barrel aging.  For example, a lot of IPA’s and lagers best display their clean and/or hoppy characteristics when served fresh after a characteristically brief, steel-to-glass fermentation period (although some barrel-aged beers are given a later dry-hopping to maintain a hoppy element).

Also, bourbon aging cannot rescue a mediocre beer.  A wimpy underlying initial product that’s bourbon barreled will simply taste like a mediocre beer dumped in bourbon.  In addition, many beer celebrants complain about the scarcity of these barrel-aged releases, not to mention the beers’ excessive expense and flat-out hype.  Who isn’t annoyed by that beer-snob buddy who goes on and on about how much he loves barrel-aged beers and won’t even touch a pilsner?

Yet, there’s no denying that bourbon barreling is here to stay and is a terrific way to reinvent an underlying beer, particularly an imperial one.  Here are five notable examples of some barrel-aged beers that you may have or should come across:

1.   Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout

I’ve written ad nauseum about this beer, and you can read my commentary elsewhere.  It is a shining example, the perhaps the finial, of barrel aging.  Start with a great imperial beer, i.e., Founders Breakfast Stout, a coffee/chocolate/oatmeal stout that’s hopped to a whopping 70 IBU’s.  Age it in bourbon barrels.  Voila.  You get an end product that is 11.2%, tastes like coffee and chocolate, and is pleasantly bitter but is infused with boozy bourbon aroma, vanilla, smoke and caramel notes.  An equally great beer is Bell’s Black Note; but good luck finding any, and you’d better have some Dark Lord on hand to trade.

Note also that KBS has been described as being cave-aged.  I’m aware that Founders ages this and some of its other beers in an old gypsum mine in theGrand Rapids,Michiganarea that’s designed to replicate the cave-aging process.  Cave aging is a long-standing brewing method which takes advantage of the cool and stable environment within caves in order to leave the barrel-aging process as undisturbed as possible.  The low humidity within caves permits less evaporation.  This process is said to result in fresher end products.  Ommegang Brewery actually cave-ages some of their beers, including their Hennepin, within actual caves in upstate New York.

2.   Goose Island Bourbon County Baudoinia

This keg-only beer within Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout family takes the acclaimed stout in a new direction through its bourbon aging in barrels carrying the fungus Baudoinia compniacensis, a culture that feasts on ethanol and grows on barrels stored low within distillery rickhouses.  Goose brewers decided to have fun with fungus and let it feast on some BCS to see what happens.  The end result was a fabulous version of BCS, with the usual bourbon barrel elements but minus most of the alcohol’s heat.  A soft dark chocolate and licorice sheen seemed to pave this dense libation.  You could taste a bit of a fungus in a slightly tart but fleeting sour flavor.

3.   Full Sail’s Top Sail Porter

Oregonbrewer Full Sail releases this bourbon-barreled version its porter biennially.  Most bourbon-barrel-aged beers are stouts but imperial porters are just as capable of yielding terrific results from the process.  Top Sail’s underlying porter smokiness fuels this beer’s roasted flavor which sets it apart from many bourbon-barreled stouts.  Plus its characteristically syrupy porter nature blends well with the bourbon flavors and aromas.  It’s like bourbon stew.  This is a must-find if you are out in Oregonor know anyone out there.

4.    Founders Backwoods Bastard

To me, this beer use to stand as an example of not-quite-spectacular bourbon barreling.  Because the underlying beer is not a viscous stout or porter, but is a thinner cola-like beer, the bourbon threatens to overpower the mix, and the beer is too hot with alcohol.  However, at a recent Founders event, I tried a 2-year-old version of this that revolutionized my opinion.  Gone are the young version’s soda-like qualities, and the excessive alcohol heat has melted away.  The bourbon notes, the vanilla, and the most outstanding feature, the peat, remain.  Their effect is more subtle than before but even more rewarding, and the overall tamer mixture is rounder, softer and downright spectacular.

5.    Tyranena’s Rocky’s Revenge

Finally, here’s an example of a failed, or at least inessential, attempt at bourbon aging.  Tyranena’s a great brewer but the fundamental problem with this barrel-aged beer is, well, the beer.  Brown ales do not lend themselves well to the bourbon-aging process.  They’re subtle, low-alcohol beers that are low in hops and heavily reliant upon their delicate nuttiness.  Plus, they’re thin-bodied.  I suppose you could bourbon barrel Flossmoor Station’s robust Pullman Brown, but that’s basically a porter anyway.

Rocky’s is drenched in bourbon and doesn’t itself bring enough to the table to counterbalance it.  It ends up tasting like weak, carbonated bourbon instead of a finely crafted beer with bourbon elements.  Plus, the beer’s dominant flavor is the malts’ sweetness, which only compounds and does not compliment the sweetness from the bourbon and the wood’s vanilla tannins.  The overall result is dull bourbon syrup and it’s no surprise that this gets only an 85, a B average at Beer Advocate.  Do more homework, Tyranena!  Although I haven’t tried it, I imagine that the Jewel-Osco version of this style of barreling, Lexington Brewing’s Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, is of similar quality.

— M. Sheppard