It was the first of a lot of things: my first trip to Chicago, my first chance to see Wrigley Field. It was the first time I had beers with author Michael Jackson; it was my first authentic deep-dish pizza and late-night Chicago Red Hot. But most importantly, it was my first taste of bourbon barrel-aged beers. I can’t recall whether it was from Goose Island, Flossmoor Station or Mickey Finn’s, but I remember vividly how that first sip transported me to the Christmas of my youth where my aunts and uncles would all sit around nursing bourbon and 7UP on ice as children ripped open boxes of toys from Santa. My parents hosted the party each year, and while they were never huge booze hounds, each holiday season offered them the opportunity to procure a new handle (1.75 liters) of Jim Beam for celebrating. On the morning of the celebration, my father poured the first cup and a half into his legendary eggnog while the rest was reserved for drinks. Ours wasn’t a large family, so a handle of Beam lasted until next Thanksgiving, and opening the Christmas bottle was a special moment. Apart from the sheer size of the bottle, what I remember most is the smell and taste of those drinks. Bourbon is a powerful spirit. Even as a child, I was able to nose sweet caramel, bakers vanilla and the woody notes that erupted from the bottle. For me, the bourbon was always more aromatic then the Christmas candles flickering above the fireplace. But truth be told, I really never liked the way bourbon smelled or tasted. But Chicago changed the way I felt about bourbon. It was the first time that bourbon stopped being associated solely with the family gatherings. That Saturday morning in 1998, I was staring at a flight of beers aged in bourbon and whiskey casks. As the memories of Christmas past flooded my senses, suddenly the caramel seemed perfect, the vanilla more Tahitian and the spirited wood flavors as warming as the fireplace we used to snuggle up to. Each new glass of beer was a roller coaster of expression. Squinting across the table, I could almost see a veil of ethanol leaping from the glasses as the beers tried to breathe. These beers were that hot. I wasn’t sure it was even safe to drink some of these beers and, while not a smoker, I was praying no one else would feel the need to light up next to me. As a judge, the experience was a bit unnerving. There was no rhyme or reason to what was going on in the glasses. It was a bit all too Wild Wild West. It was 1998, and the notion that nobody really understood barrel aging was readily apparent. Looking around the table, I think most of the judges agreed many brewers were brandishing bourbon barrels like a bandolier-toting Pancho Villa shooting it up south of the border. There were a few notable marksmen whose aim was spot-on. Others used barrels more timidly, like Ralphie staring down the barrel of his new Official Red Ryder Air Gun on Christmas Day. Since then, I’ve come to know that barrel aging has winners and losers, and inevitably some of the flavor gain can be incredible while other examples can make you want to shoot your eye out. I don’t recall there being more than a dozen or so beers to be judged that day. In truth, many of them were not memorable. Their collective strength, however, is what struck a chord with me. Too many of the beers lacked integrated structure and behaved more like a round of fiery boilermakers at an Irish bar. Even with more losers then winners, this was a seminal moment. I left the judging session wondering how I’d be able to incorporate the barrel-aging process into the beers I wanted to make. Spirit barrels afforded the key to a new world. I slept that night as if Peter Pan had visited my beer-filled dreams in Chicago hotel room and dared me to imagine. Being a young and inquisitive brewer, I set out to do what every lad does: I went drinking. Specifically, I went out and sampled a ton of new drams and eventually came to love both bourbon and scotch. Many of these experiences help frame my tasting sessions here at the Lost Abbey Brewing Co. Sampling every barrel before we make decisions on a final blend is tough work, but somebody has to do it. Where once there were no oak barrels for flavoring beer, today they are everywhere. From the tiniest brewpub to the largest breweries, you can’t tour a facility without kicking a barrel somewhere. A few years ago, I turned down the opportunity to wire a book on the barrel-aging process as it relates to beer. I was knee-deep in growing a fledging brewery, and it just didn’t make sense. But much of the research I have done over the years makes me a great candidate to be your field guide into this exploding segment of craft brewing. Hopefully, my insight as the steward for one of the larger collections of barrel-aging beers in this country will be our compass. With 850 oak barrels on hand in our brewery at any given time, I am always learning about liquid evolution and the role barrel aging can play. So, I’ve been tasked with sharing my experiences with the readers of All About Beer Magazine. The hope is that I will deliver my world of brewing into your living room, kitchen or local tavern. Together, we’ll cover a range of products and producers, and see what’s working for their operations. My goal for each issue will be to discuss what takes place during the barrel-aging process. While much of it is still a mystery to me, even after 14 years, I remain steadfast in my endeavor to be your fearless leader. Fear not! This is after all beer we’re talking about. It promises to be fun, and you’re going to learn more than you ever cared to know about what can make great beer extraordinary. Since that first day in Chicago, I’ve come to learn that many of the best alcohols need to kiss oak to be transformed into something glorious. Tequila, scotch, bourbon, Bordeaux and even rum slumber for years in small barrels until they emerge like a bear from hibernation and roar to life. Everywhere we turn, oak is the mysterious kissing bandit making out regularly with some of the most prized alcoholic beverages in the world. And thankfully it is now beer’s turn. Think of this column as a serial novel unfolding with each issue. Like a novel, there will be a cast of characters. We’ll discuss Proof, The Angel’s Share, a few guys named Cooper, as well as exotic things such as Quercus alba and more. I personally am hoping for a “who would have thunk” ending that will unravel many of the complexities locked inside these barrels. Next issue we’ll begin with the decisions of oak selection and bending a tree into a barrel. So I leave you today with this first line of our next story … “I planted a seed today. And though it was but a lonely seed, it will have grown to be a mighty oak when they bury me in that same ground.”
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.