Making a divine barrel-aged stout is my holy grail. It seems like alchemy—combining a beer with a spirits barrel and time to transform the beer into something recognizable, yet also fundamentally different. The whole barrel-ageing thing is something I have very little experience with, but have looked forward to doing for many years. Given that we’re getting ready to release Barrel-Aged Chronicle, something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, I thought it would be great to share the story behind Barrel-Aged Chronicle.
On the face of it, it seems so easy! Just take some beer and stick it in the barrel, forget about it for a while and then take it out one day. Presto! Deliciousness in a glass! And yet, as with the rest of brewing, the difference between OK and lovely requires a bit more. The right recipe, technique, and attention to the nuances of flavor and balance are key. It turns out that a lot can happen to make a barrel-aged beer less than amazing. They can end up being hot instead of pleasantly warming; they can end up dry and tannic from wood; the roast flavors in a stout can end up tasting magnified and bitter rather than mellowed by time. On the other end of spectrum, they can be sweet vanilla (and cocoa) bombs lacking in balance.
We chose Chronicle, our flagship stout, for Silver Branch’s first barrel-aged beer. Our goal: capture that elusive marriage of pleasant alcohol warmth, rich mouthfeel, vanilla and other positive attributes of fine aged American whiskeys, finished with mild wood flavor and tannins for complexity and balance. The making of Barrel Aged Chronicle is… well, chronicled below.
Chronicle. It was Always Chronicle
The first step in our approach, using Chronicle as our base beer, was decided long ago. Back when we were working on our business plan, we needed something to dream about other than finding a new name or endless excel spreadsheets with sales projections. Long before the beer had ever been brewed, except in home-brew test batches, I knew I wanted to make Barrel-Aged Chronicle. As a smooth, balanced, malty-roasty, low-hop beer with pleasing toffee and caramel notes, it seemed a perfect candidate for barrel ageing. I still believe that’s the case. We will only know for sure in a few weeks once we are all sipping it at our Thanksgiving get-togethers, but we’re very excited after conducting our initial tastings. We are doing a pre-sale and giving everyone a chance to try the finished Barrel-Aged Chronicle during our BLACKOUT WEDNESDAY event on the day before Thanksgiving (starting at 11am).
Acquiring our Barrels (Locally)
Choosing barrels is a also more complicated than I expected. Barrels used to be turned into a ubiquitous flower planter when I was a kid, now they’re a highly prized commodity for breweries and distilleries all over the country and internationally. The challenge in choosing a barrel boils down to one thing: So… Many… Choices… Young barrels, old barrels, bourbon barrels, bourbon with wheat or less wheat in the mash, rye barrels, rum barrels, tequila barrels, barrels used once, barrels used more than once, and barrels from every which brand of your spirit of choice.
After perusing all these choices from multiple purveyors and feeling paralyzed, the choice was made easy for us by the fact that we have friends up at Sagamore Distillery in Baltimore. Lots of local brewery friends have used their barrels and been very happy with their results. We only needed 10 barrels which we could fit into one cargo van. This meant we could pick up the barrels ourselves which would reduce empty exposure time and shipping expense.
Filling the barrels
Filling barrels is done with a tool called a bulldog. As you can see in the pictures, it is a stainless steel tube with an expandable stopper and an inlet and vent to allow you to purge the barrel with carbon dioxide (oxygen being a primary enemy of good beer). Each barrel was first emptied of residual whiskey. You’ve heard of the Angel’s share? Well, we call this whiskey the brewer’s share. The barrel is then purged with carbon dioxide, filled with beer, and plugged with a venting bung. Then came the hardest part: waiting.
Blending with New Beer isn’t a Sin
As Barrel Aged Chronicle went from dream to actuality, one of the first things that needed updating was my understanding of the role of blending in making spirits-barrel aged beers. Blending is famously essential to creating wonderful barrel-aged sour beers, but I imagined that, when it came to spirts-barrel aged beers they would, as I mention above, get stuck it in a barrel and miraculously turn into Nectar of the Gods.
In researching how breweries that make my favorite barrel aged beers do it, however, one of the first things I learned was that blending with non barrel-aged beer is about a lot more than just stretching the amount of beer you can package. That is of course one benefit, but it’s much more about bringing balance into the overall character of the beer. We all know that barrel-ageing adds lovely flavors of spice, vanilla, and alcohol complexity to beer, but it often also does less positive things: it can make a beer taste significantly drier; it can turn a pleasant and balanced roast taste acrid and chalky; it can taste overly boozy. To end up with a balanced finished beer, most breweries we talked to and read about, brew a new beer with the right attributes to fold perfectly into the barrel-aged portion; creating a balanced beer that allows positive barrel attributes to shine.
Choosing our Beer for Blending
In order to determine which beer to brew for the purpose of blending, we had to pull samples and evaluate how the Barrel-Aged Chronicle was developing over time. We used a drill, sanitized stainless steel nails, and a hammer. This method has the advantage of limiting oxygen exposure while still allowing us to progressively taste samples over time. It also allows us to extract only the beer necessary for sampling purposes, no wasting the good stuff!
About a month after adding the beer to the barrel, we tried it for the first time. At that point, it tasted like we had dumped a shot of whiskey into a glass of chronicle. It was simply hot and boozy. After another 4 weeks, it was clear that a transformation was underway. We had our friends from Manor Hill taste with us a the very end of our WORLDS CONVERGE collaboration brew day and we all formed some tasting notes. There were clear notes of spice and cedar, with a little bit of vanilla as well. There was also a fair amount of drying tannin in the finish.
With these flavors in mind, we began to formulate a beer for blending. Based on our tasting, it was clear we needed a big, rich stout with smooth roast to give backbone for the spiciness of the rye and balance to the wood tannins. We chose an imperial stout brewed for a high finishing gravity as the natural choice, since we wanted to add body and mouthfeel with a minimum of added beer, and we didn’t want to dilute the nice roast flavors we had in the barrel-aged stout and wanted to keep in the finished beer. We formulated a recipe for ENDLESS ODYSSEY, a 10.5% imperial stout that would both be perfect for blending but also delicious by itself.
Determining the Blending Ratio
When Endless Odyssey had finished fermenting and been cooled, we settled down to the arduous task of deciding our blend. We sat down with our friends from Right Proper and with samples of other well-known, tasty, barrel-aged stouts and our own. We started to play with blends ranging from 10 to 50% of Endless Odyssey. Opinions differed, but consensus arrived around 30% Endless Odyssey which resulted in a blend that is complex and satisfying, with clear spicy rye whiskey barrel flavors, some cedar and sage, vanilla sweetness in the finish, and a finished balance between wood tannins and sweet malt.
The BLACKOUT WEDNESDAY Release Party
After all that hard work, we felt the best way to celebrate would be, as you may have guessed, to drink more beer! We’re releasing Barrel-Aged Chronicle with Endless Odyssey in the taproom at Silver Branch on Wednesday, November 27th, right before Thanksgiving. We’ll also be putting on Chronicle and Coffee Chronicle so you can try all the variants of our beloved tropical stout. To learn more about the event or put your name down for some pre-sale tickets check out the Eventbrite here or check out the event on Facebook here. I look forward to sampling some Barrel-Aged Chronicle with you in the taproom!