Barrel-aged beers are a bit of an occasion. One can’t help but feel special when indulging in these cask-cured creations. Each sip of these vintage elixirs transport the drinker back in time, far beyond the beer’s initial marriage to wood. These complex conceptions put you in the seat of a time machine, taking you back centuries when life was simpler. Fleeting visions of Belgian Monks perfecting their aging craft, in abbeys lost to time, flash before you with every tilt of the glass. This tedious, arduous technique demands reverence and respect. Therefore, the question must be asked. Do you respect wood?
The good folks over at East End Brewing Co. sure do! That’s why on Saturday, June 9th, they opened their doors to the barrel room, and let in some of the most dedicated beer drinkers this side of the Monongahela. Our tour guide, Andy, gave us an in-depth look into the knotty world of barrel-aged beers.
Most barrel-aged beers start out life like any other, up until after fermentation. Rather than pumping the beer into the bright tank (storage until bottling), the fermented beer is pumped into the cask of choice. Each cask is treated beforehand by pumping in hot water until the barrel swells, allowing it to remain tight, so no leaks occur. East End’s barrel variety is impressive. Bourbon, rum, tequila and gin barrels line the back walls of the room, yet the majority of barrels originate from the vineyard. Andy explained that East End has 30,000 pounds of beer aging in Brett barrels.
Brett, short for Brettanomyces lambicus, is a strain of wild yeast found in East End’s wine barrels. Brett yeast is extremely volatile and transmittable, and therefore kept separate from liquor-aged barrels and brewing equipment. “Touching the Brett barrels and then coming in contact with clean brewing equipment could potentially ruin an entire batch of beer,” warned Andy.
After the beer is pumped in, the aging process begins. “From initial brewing, to bottling of an aged beer, it takes a little more than one year,” Andy clarified. Barrels are periodically tapped, with their contents tasted for consistency and quality. The best barrels of the same beer will be blended, while rejected barrels will be dumped. On average, 3 ½ barrels will be lost. This loss of barrels, coupled with longer storage times, accounts for the premium prices and scarcity of barrel-aged beers.
East End presented the tour with four exceptional examples of their barrel aging skill. Two Brett-aged beers were presented first, followed by two bourbon barrel-aged ales. Each successive beer was as well thought out and unique as the last.
Saison la Seconde
This farmhouse-style ale, with its 6.3% abv., kicked off the tasting and set the tone for the rest of the tour. Sour and slightly funky, la Seconde is a great example of a subtle, wine-aged ale. The beer poured a deep-golden hue, with a slight haze, and remained effervescent from start
to finish. Tastes of chardonnay, lime, and funk hit the tongue, while visions of the farmhouse entered the mind.
Brett Hop is a big departure from the Saison la Seconde. Based on East End’s flagship beer, Big Hop, Brett Hop is fermented with 100% Brettanomyces. This beer is almost as funky as 1970’s baseline, while remaining hoppy, fruity, and sour. Pouring a darker, reddish hue, Brett Hop’s 6.8% abv. is still tame compared to other barrel-aged creations.
Homewood Reserve: 2016 Vintage
The Homewood Reserve is the bourbon barrel-aged brother of East End’s Black Strap Stout. And boy is it special. Pouring like used motor oil, this black, syrup-like concoction is a thing of pure beauty. Smooth flavors of chocolate, coffee, and bourbon caress the tongue. At only 6.3% abv., this beer, unbelievably, has a lower alcohol content considering all of its characteristics of a big, boozy barrel-aged stout.
Fatter Gary Imperial Brown Ale
The final beer, a personal favorite that I had featured in my Leaf and Bean article, the Fatter Gary Imperial Brown Ale, was a phenomenal way to go out with a boozy bang! This 9% abv. imperial brown ale is crammed with character. A dark brown, almost black pour, uncovers a myriad of flavors. Cocoa, vanilla and caramel are most prevalent, while the barrel-aging makes the beer exceptionally smooth.
East End’s cask-cured beers have their own unique personality. The stories they tell are in the barrels they fill. My admiration and respect for this ancient art has only increased after touring the facilities. Are you sad you missed this tour? Don’t be. Keep an eye on East End Brewery’s website for more events similar to this one!