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Barrel-Aged Ales: A Gateway to Top-Shelf Spirits?
Posted by Paul Beilstein

Since moving to Portland, Oregon in 2010, I have met quite a few people whose drinking histories begin with craft beer. Unlike myself and most of my prior acquaintances, these drinkers did not begin by trying to play cool while they choked down a bottom-rung macro lager or by diluting the most available or affordable spirit with cola. They were not in attendance at the $3-a-cup keg parties I attended on Friday nights in college (in my defense, those parties did help the hosts pay their rent, so I was contributing to the local economy, no?).


These are not drinkers who somehow found their way into craft beer; they are craft beer enthusiasts. And now, at least partly due to the rise in popularity of barrel-aged ales, their enthusiasm is beginning to spread into the wide world of spirits. It seems that whenever I find myself among a group of self-identified "beer geeks," the subject of bourbon is raised. Some of the geeks already have begun drinking bourbon, while others claim they have been "thinking about getting into [it]."


When beer geeks talk bourbon, they talk expensive bourbon. Keep in mind that these are people who are willing to stand outside in the rain at 5 am on a Saturday morning in the dead of winter to score a few bottles of a limited release ale, simply because it has been aged in bourbon barrels. They are hobbyists, collectors; they are not afraid to spend time, energy, and money on this enjoyment. They talk about Pappy Van Winkle's, and when they do, they talk age and rarity.


Beer geek culture is a social culture, but not a let's-get-together-and-talk-about-our-lives-over-a-pint culture. Instead, it is a let's-get-together-and-talk-about-rare-beers-over-a-sampler-tray culture. When those rare beers have been aged in barrels, the talk inevitably shifts to the spirits that once occupied the barrels.


In 2011, Fifty Fifty Brewing Co. released four barrel-aged versions of their Imperial Stout, Eclipse (vintage 2010). People sought out these beers in spite of their price tags, and those people routinely referred to the beers as "Four Roses Eclipse," "Evan Williams Eclipse," and the slightly enigmatic "Brandy Eclipse" (that one stayed on shelves a bit longer than the others). Currently, if you visit Fifty Fifty's website, you can find information on "Eclipse futures." As with wine futures, Eclipse futures allow the consumer to claim a certain quantity of this coveted beverage before its official release. The 2011 vintage includes seven different versions of the stout, and this year, one was aged in Rittenhouse Rye barrels (don't think craft beer drinkers haven't noticed all those new-old rye cocktails a few lines up from the tap list on the drinks menu).


As the trend of barrel-aging gains popularity, brewers are experimenting with gin barrels, tequila barrels, and cognac barrels. I can say firsthand that a local gin-barrel-aged ale's aromatic characteristics encouraged me to drive down to Distillery Row for a bottle of Aviation Gin, and I know soon my slightly geekier compatriots soon will be schooling me on spirits, as they already do with beer.


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Paul Beilstein was born and raised in Illinois. He earned a BA in rhetoric from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and an MFA in writing from the University of California, Irvine. He lives with his wife Shereen in Portland, Oregon.

Categories: Beer, Beverage Industry

Posted by Paul Beilstein on February 21, 2012 11:46 am | Permalink 

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