Are You Tasting the Pith? - 21st October 2007
It's no surprise to anyone that beer used to be distributed in wooden barrels. That's traditionally what we think of as a barrel; a set of staves, shaved and bent into place by a cooper, filled with beer, and then off to the pub with it. What might surprise you is that usually, these barrels were lined with pitch, a sticky resinous material that made the barrel watertight and, crucially, inert. No wood came into contact with the beer, and so there was no transfer of flavour.
There seems to be a trend at the moment for cask-finishing beer. Perhaps it's been made popular with the rise of Innis & Gunn's oak-aged beers, and although it has long been a trick of micro-craft brewers to give beer a spell in a second fill cask, these were only ever tiny productions. The American brewery Deschutes this year won the International Beer Challenge, gaining the Supreme Champion award for their beer The Abyss, a strong stout aged in bourbon barrels. Whatever the reason for the sudden popularity of this technique, it is an interesting addition to the arsenal of techniques that a brewer can use to coax the very best from his (or much less commonly, her) beer.
To talk in very broad generalities, the beer picks up flavour from the barrel itself, and also from what has been kept in the barrel before the beer. There is also a suggestion that the act of filling the barrel may also micro-oxygenate the beer, allowing a complexity and smoothness to develop as it matures (see wine-consultant Michel Rolland and the film Mondovino for more background on this). There is also a third way that a beer may be influenced, and that is the growth of barrel flora, and bacteria in the wood interacting with the beer. The first may be avoided by regular sterile handling; the second is almost inevitable, although not necessarily a bad thing. It can add a certain complex edge unobtainable in sterile-conditioned beer, as evidence by Rodenbach's famously tangy beers, and also by Greene King's Strong Suffolk Ale (and if you've never tried the latter, it's a history lesson in a glass).
The ever-excellent Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire recently hosted an event showcasing the wood-aged output of several breweries, including their own. Innis & Gunn's new Blonde Ale (6% abv) was the first beer of the day, and showed off the classic I&G style; honey, nuts, vanilla and a slight sweetness, drying clean and fresh on the palate. Sadly, there were no samples of the Brooklyn Brewery's covert "Black Ops" project, a barrel aged strong stout, although there were pictures available from Garrett Oliver for those who knew the correct password. Fuller's head brewer John Keeling had a swathe of experimental beers to show, although unfortunately these may never reach production due to difficulty negotiating the torturous duty path of HMRC, Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (of which, more later). However, Fullers cask-aged beers; please note that these are all experimental beers, unlikely to be released in the near future.
EXP1 (7.7%) is a blend of 3 three cask-aged beers, knocked back to a strength designed to please the marketing department. It has the immediately recognisable Fullers character, a lovely rich fruitiness (plums and prunes), a bitter orange twist in the finish, and perhaps a lingering hint of smokiness, and is really quite good. ESB Cask Aged (8.5% abv) had a big fruitiness on the nose, with a coconut and vanilla edge - clearly the oak showing through - but almost completely flat, with a hint of acetic sourness about it. A second bottle was a little less sour, but sadly neither bottles were in good condition. 1845 Cask Aged (8.5%) was, as you might expect, a huge fruitcakey, unctuous mouthful, with vanilla and almonds in evidence, and a drying, persistent finish. Vintage & Golden (11.75% abv) aged in a Glenmorangie cask was, sadly, a little acetic and bitter, although the same mix aged in a Jim Beam cask (also 11.75% abv) was a riotous triumph; big, slightly thick, a little spirity, but with plums, marmalade and coconut all showing through in a wonderful harmony of flavours. Balanced and integrated, this was the best of the bunch.
This on its would have been an event worth travelling to, but of course, Thornbridge "Never Ordinary" Brewery were hosting, and a had a swathe of their own cask-aged St. Petersburg Imperial Stouts to show off. The Speyside Reserve (8.8% abv, and aged in a 1966 Macallan Cask!) had taken on a distinctly dry, herbal edge, packing an astringent, slightly phenolic punch. The Highland Reserve (9.4% abv, from a Mortlach cask) had been given a slightly vegetal nose, and the palate seemed somehow a little sweeter, perhaps less astringent. The Islay Reserve (Caol Ila cask, 10.4% abv) was outrageous, all peaty and phenolic, with a seaweedy, smoky finish.
That was the end of the cask-aged beers, but there were still a few treats in store. A special batch of St Petersburg Imperial Stout, brewed with chestnut honey, was tapped, and goodness, what an eye-opener. The honey itself (there was a jar to taste) was surprisingly bitter, and this bitterness was evident in the finished stout as a dry, phenolic, antiseptic note, with some floral overtones. It was summed up beautifully as "adult dandelion and burdock", and indeed, there were clear similarities in the herbal edge. There was also a little wooden cask of a special barley wine (11% abv), a joint venture between Thornbridge and Brooklyn breweries. As you might guess, it was exceptional; a big cough-candy sweetness, although prevented from being cloying by massive hopping, producing a glowing, coppery, star-bright liqueur-like beer of wonderful complexity and drinkability.
Relaxing in the bar of the manor house after the close of the official part of the day, we were treated to Thornbridge Kipling (5.5% abv), a very pale golden ale brewed using the New Zealand Sauvin hop, which lends a lemongrassy, gooseberry note to the beer. To be honest, I've run out of superlatives, and I'll have to settle for "excellent" again.
Of course, this cask-ageing lark isn't without it's problems. The esteemed writer and craft brewer James McRorie gave an interesting paper on the old practice of "grogging"; refilling spirits casks with a liquid with the sole intention of releasing the alcohol stored in the wood of the cask, a practice that is specifically forbidden by HMRC. These guidelines would seem to imply that cask-ageing is a form of grogging, and is technically forbidden. Certainly, from the brewers present who have tried to pay duty on cask-aged beers that finish with a higher gravity, there have been a variety of outcomes, from straightforward success, to outright prohibition, and a variety of torturous and unsuccessful quests in between the two. Hopefully, common sense will prevail, and appropriate guidelines issued to enable this craft practice to flourish. Until then, best to keep the curtains drawn if you're enjoying something a little special...
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