liquids | hip hops
Imperial Stouts BY ROGER A. BAYLOR | PHOTO BY ANDY HYSLOP
You’ll hear one sort of pitch at a sales meeting, and see another thrown during a baseball game, but brewer’s pitch is completely different. Brewer’s pitch is a resinous substance used to line wooden barrels so liquid doesn’t come into contact with the wood. That’s because exposure to a wooden barrel affects the flavor of its contents, and generally over the centuries, brewers have preferred their wooden vessels to be neutral. Brewer’s pitch remains a handy means to this end, and anyway, stainless steel long ago supplanted wood for beer’s storage and serving.
But what if a beer’s modification is the stated aim of the exercise?
f submerged wood can positively complement the taste of beer, as with white ash chips or oak spirals, and if wooden cooperage harboring funky microorganisms can leverage its own intended outcome (for example, in some styles of sour beer), then barrels formerly harboring spirits offer a wide potential range of flavor and aroma characteristics for beers aged inside them. Consider an emptied oak Bourbon barrel. It was charred in order to properly host Kentucky’s indigenous corn-based liquor, and after a period of years, the mellow finished whiskey was removed for bottling to proof. However, this once-used barrel retains considerable evidence of Bourbon. Why not repurpose these flavors and aromas by aging beer in it? It seems a forehead-slapping moment, and yet the genuinely strange thing is how long it took for someone to grasp the possibilities. Lost Abbey brewmaster Tomme Arthur, no stranger to the nuances of barrel aging, identifies Bourbon Barrel Zero in this 2013 excerpt from All About Beer magazine: In 1992, Greg Hall from Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago might very well have become the first American brewer to produce a bourbon-barrel-aged beer when he filled six oak barrels that previously contained Jim Beam. He poured this experiment at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver that fall, inducing rumors, appreciative nods and whispers of something entirely new. I can second Arthur’s emotion, for at a GABF vintage beer tasting in 1997, the late, great beer writer Fred Eckhardt was seated next to me. When I asked him the beer he considered the festival’s finest ever, he didn’t hesitate: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. In our contemporary craft beer era, all manner of spirit-soaked barrels are being merrily procured by enterprising craft brewers as creative mediums for aging and experimentation. The number of beer styles deemed appropriate for barrel-aging also has expanded, although certain combinations strain credulity to such an extent that I’m almost afraid to joke about