As of late local barrel-aged beers have come of age, so to speak.
Barrel projects are now a key part of the mission at a handful of Bellingham breweries. Last year the added patience paid off for Wander Brewing with their Wild Warehouse, a funky farmhouse ale aged in white wine barrels, which took home the gold medal in the wood-aged category of the Great American Beer Festival.
This winter Boundary Bay unveiled its Bootlegger Barrel Series, $17 bombers of a few darker classics aged in Chuckanut Bay Distillery whiskey barrels: the Scotch-style ale; the winter warmer Cabin Fever; and two variations on their oatmeal stout.
And for over a year Kulshan has had a corked-and-caged Shuksan Russian Imperial Stout aged in whiskey barrels, but until now I’d been deterred by a $21 price tag, as I’m sure others were.
That’s what this column is here for. Here are my notes on three local barrel-aged beers.
Boundary Bay Cabin Fever Aged in Hungarian Oak Barrels. Huge immaculate notes of oak, like from a full woody bourbon, come through in both aroma and on the palate. An off-white lacing fades to a ring of head. The color is a murky ruby-brown that looks fine in low light and horrifyingly cloudy-brown in good light. Set that aside, if you can, because it’s absolutely packed with flavor, from vanilla bean to toffee to maple syrup. On top is an electric sugary zing that made me do a double-take. Often you’ll find that in massive-gravity-aged ales or barleywines. (Think Avery Brewing’s mammoth beers.) At 8.5 percent alcohol this is a big beer, no doubt, but not that big. Many breweries suggest serving darker ales a little warmer, in the 50 to 60 degree F range. Boundary Bay stores these cold in a fridge, so I did too. A while back I reviewed Cabin Fever, the base, and found it’s a solid but not quite top-of-the-line beer — not as good as, say, Boundary Bay’s oatmeal stout. Here, barrel-aging has not only smoothed over any cracks, but evolved this winter warmer into one of the better things to come out of this storied brewery. A-
Boundary Bay Imperial Oatmeal Stout Aged in Hungarian Oak Barrels. Obsidian and opaque, Boundary Bay’s regular Imperial Oatmeal Stout is an intimidating, ruthless bully of a beer — and one of my favorites in town. If there’s one major improvement here, it’s a new bouquet of oak, alcohol burn and honey. And maybe toasted marshmallow? I think? Unlike the barrel-aged Cabin Fever, the complex whiskey woodiness gets lost in the monolithic deep-space body. Three or four sips in, a few things happen. One, the most rich flavors grow more and more indecipherable — not really clashing, but blurring. Two, the alcohol starts to go to your head, and all of a sudden the 8.5 percent alcohol listed on the label seems … lowball. As an aside, the label is a step up from the Windows 95 graphics on Boundary Bay’s old bottles, and the blue wax is a nice touch until you have to carve it off. Overall, is it an improvement over the source material? Perhaps, but it’s not a $12 step up. C+
Kulshan Barrel-Aged Shuksan Russian Imperial Stout. A regal red-and-white pinstriped label reads 9.5 percent alcohol, bottled Nov. 12, 2015, in a 750 ml bomber. First thing you’ll notice is a heady smoky single-malt aroma on the nose, crossed with something like red wine. The head is the color of crema on a shot of espresso, the body as black as the name implies. On the palate the dominant note is big, rich and sharp: dark chocolate. That can get to be too much if you bite off more than you can chew. (And here, in the land of stouts, “chew” is about right.) Texture on the tongue is light- to medium-bodied for a stout, and fantastic. Along with the aroma, I think it’s the highlight of the beer. Considering the style the depth of flavor seems lacking beyond what you get up front. There are lingering tinges of whiskey-oak and resonant notes from dark-roasted malts, like French-roasted coffee. Yet the closer I study the body the more it teeters toward an uneven bitterness. Yes, it’s a respectable stout, but on the top shelf it aims for a slightly higher bar than it clears. B
— So who else, aside from Wander, Boundary Bay and Kulshan, has new barrel-aged stuff out? Let’s see. In December Aslan released a light American lager mixed with a red saison aged in white American oak barrels; North Fork has been pouring two barrel-aged sours named after Pixies lyrics: a blond aged with Madeleine Angevine grapes and another sour “dirty blonde,” and last I checked Structures’ barrel-fermented saison was on tap. And I’d be shocked if I didn’t miss a few.
Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org.