I love the Windy City. It has buildings that stretch to the heavens, the cursed Cubs and its own style of hot dogs. What’s not to like about that? It’s a gritty lakefront community with a checkered history of crooked politicians, mob bosses named Bugsy and Capone and their illicit everything everywhere. Like most cities, it endured the Great Experiment that was Prohibition and has a rich landscape of old bars and rundown pool halls.
Chicago is almost the polar opposite of Flagstaff, AZ, home to Northern Arizona University and The Lumberjacks. About the only thing these two places have in common is that both can get quite windy from time to time and I’ve heard last call uttered more times than I can remember in both these cities. Because of this, I have a soft spot in my drinking heart for them both.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain why a city needs a plethora of dive bars and juke joints if it hopes to maintain a shred of credibility. Luckily, there’s no shortage of these in Flagstaff. My collegiate favorite was Charly’s. I quickly came to appreciate Charly’s as a silvering institution in downtown when I discovered my laughingly fake ID instantly made me a man at this fine establishment.
The windowless smoky watering hole was dominated by its pervasive bourbon, straight, no-chaser attitude. The rotting floor under the pool table slanted toward the Grand Canyon. Every Sunday a new acoustic trio plucked bass strings as cool-hand Luke brushed the snare drum from a corner stage.
Some were touring groups passing through Flagstaff pausing long enough to tune up on their way to Phoenix. Others were much more baby-faced, toting their inexperience and aspirations of grandeur to the stage in hopes of becoming the next big thing. From time to time we were blessed by the presence of a gifted trumpet player dissecting classics, adding new layers and riffs. The whole concept of drinking and shooting pool while new bands closed out each Sunday night was so very hip and entirely college-like.
Late-night Sundays brought early Mondays where I constantly nodded off during intro to music. The professor often reminded us that there is nothing more quintessentially American than jazz. For more than 100 years, it has moved in and out of the American fabric, allowing a group of craftsmen to weave the most amazing tapestry that we recognize as jazz. But if you distill it down to the core, jazz musicians are just people making music. What makes these greats legendary is the manner in which they are inspired to seek out new and unusual opportunities with their instruments as they hone their craft.
At our core, brewers are people who make beer. Yet the brewers I spend more time with consider themselves more artist than scientist. It leads me to wonder: Has craft brewing become another quintessential American form of expression? What if in the midst of this great American craft brewing revolution, brewers are acting more like jazz legends riffing their way through classics on their way to bigger, bolder and more amazing flavors?
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 in Denver that fall, inducing rumors, appreciative nods and whispers of something entirely new. Sure, the beer looked like beer, but clearly this was something altogether different. His improv succeeded and in doing so launched an entirely new genre of beer. While I wasn’t there, it clearly was a landmark release and pointed the compass of brewing down a new road.
It’s a safe bet that most brewers weren’t there when Miles Davis first took to the stage with Charlie Parker. And given the explosion of craft beer and breweries, it’s safe to assume many of today’s burgeoning craft brewing artists weren’t in Chicago when Greg Hall filled those barrels. But right now, we’re all a band of musicians who have adopted Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout almost as a jazz-like standard, all the while continuing to look, listen and collaborate on new flavors and improvisational opportunities from freshly emptied oak barrels.
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout proved that big beers could marry the huge flavors of American whiskey with skillful beer production. This statement of fact remains front and center today some 20 years later. Bourbon-barrel-aged beers dot the landscape and have become de facto collectibles for beer enthusiasts everywhere. It started in Chicago as a brewer planted an imaginative seed in a garden of fertile artists aching for more depth of expression. In many ways, bourbon-barrel-aged beers have been nearly reduced to jazz-like standards aspiring brewers must master. So many of them are now regularly executing this barrel-aged standard it’s almost become passé.
So what have we learned about this brewing standard in the past 20 years? Above all, we have learned that few, if any, styles of beers easily handle the rich flavors associated with freshly emptied bourbon barrels as does imperial stout.
To understand the success of each barreled version of the standard, it helps to dissect the components. Like a classic jazz trio, we can break the beer down into constituents from barrel aging, treating them like three musicians and their roles.
In order to support the bourbon flavors, there needs to be a rhythm to the alcohols. Sometimes this ethanol-based drumming can be fiery in its youth. As the beer ages, it takes on a more muted quality completely mature enough to sit back and enjoy its supporting role. As the captain of percussion, alcohol should never scream out “look at me, look at me!” Of course, from time to time, the leader will turn the spotlight on him for a solo. But alcohol should always be mindful of this conversation and work like a great drummer between the shadows of consistent plodding and deft touch. Always present and never overreaching is the collective call to action for this member of the trio.
Standing confidently off to the side of the trio is the string player. As the backbone of the group, the malt may be a bit clumsy in its handling. If so the malt may fumble its way up and down the fretless neck while trying to showcase classic flair and New World technique. Of course you’ll recognize the flavors of the malt, but they will be muted. Over time the technician will emerge and the malted sugary notes will be almost seamlessly playful with the leader of the trio.
Daringly risky, gregariously confident or born smooth, every great band or beer is only as good as the front man. And in the case of bourbon-barrel-aged beers, many of these ales will take the stage with a vanilla axe to grind. As such, expect the aromas to be as expressively youthful like a punkish trumpeter hellbent on proving something. Each note will have you syncopating between vanilla and caramels imbued by the barrel. Most likely it will seem contrived. Not yet ready for the big time, this band will sound more than a bit bombastic and lacking the seasoning that only comes from practice sessions making perfect.
Should you find a wiser, more-polished silky saxophonist leading the trio through sultry vanilla, choice caramels and Peruvian cocoa bars, you will have found your jazz. The collective notes will harmonize and at that very moment the crossroads of improvisation and standards will have met in your glass demonstrating one glorious Bitches Brew.
It has been noted that imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery. And for the past 20 years, brewers acting like jazz musicians have been churning out versions of a new bourbon-barrel-aged American standard. And for that, we are thankful that a guy in Chicago had a vision to zig and zag in a way some had never imagined possible.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.
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