It should be mentioned that Feinberg and his wife, Wendy Littlefield, who have had a long career as Belgian beer importers Vanberg & DeWulf, are well aware of the marketing potential of their cave-aging experiments. Howe Caverns, with some 13 million visitors annually, is the second most visited natural attraction in New York state after Niagara Falls.
According to Feinberg, the original batch of Cave Hennepin was placed in a highly visible location “right off the elevator” at the entrance to the caves. The second “vintage” of cave beer―300 cases of Hennepin and 180 of Ommegang (their eponymous abbey-style ale)―has been moved to another spot in what Feinberg describes as a “cul de sac.” While the Hennepin was again released for Christmas in 2001, the Ommegang will be kept an additional year in the caves.
Howe Caverns have been something of a gold mine for the brewery. Cave Hennepin emerged in 2000 to rave reviews. The beer earned a Platinum Medal and a score of 96 points from the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago.
Ommegang brewer Randy Thiel thinks the cave is a definite improvement on cold room cellaring for the beer. “The cave is a more stable environment, with little or no fluctuation in temperature, light and humidity,” he says. Since Ommegang’s brews are all corked in the Belgian tradition, the humid atmosphere of the caves also keeps the corks from drying out and letting too much air into the bottles.
There are drawbacks, however. As in any corked beer, some TCA or “corked” flavor may be transferred to the beer over time, but Thiel doesn’t see that as a flavor defect in the style of beers that Brewery Ommegang makes. “I consider myself a brewing scientist,” he says, “but it does matter that the beer is treated in a more gentle manner this way. Beer has to be in a happy place.”
Someone’s cave may be another’s mineshaft. In Juneau, the Alaskan Brewery decided to condition a barley wine it made in the spring of 2000 in the AJ (Alaskan Juneau) Mine, a historic gold mine in the area that is now more frequented by tourists than miners. A part of the brewery’s R&D (“Rough Draft”) program, the project was carried out by brewer Jim Laurent. The beer was brewed with pale and Carastan malts, along with a touch of peat-smoked malt, and hopped with Chinook and Goldings hops (OG 1091, 46 IBU, 9 percent ABV).
In spring 2001, Laurent moved a 14-barrel batch (28 kegs) of the beer about 100 yards into the mine, located on Mount Roberts. The beer was later placed in a specially built room about 300 yards deep, with windows so that the kegs were visible for visitors.
Laurent dry-hopped the brew and filtered it before kegging. “I worried about the hop flavor surviving so well in that cold temperature, but it came off pretty clean,” he says. “I had my doubts, but I think it’s a pretty good beer.”
Unfortunately, none of the beer was kept at the brewery for a flavor comparison. When tasted in December 2001, prior to its release for the Great Alaskan Beer & Barleywine Festival in Anchorage in January, the beer was Seville orange in color with a sweet malt nose and whisky-like smokiness; a soft, medium-full body; and a moderate hoppy finish. It seemed quite drinkable for such a young barley wine. Could this have been due to the cave aging?