Two new series of playful, experimental beers started showing up on the shelves of Portland’s better beer shops last month. Both take a single base beer and then riff on it with various forms of barrel aging. One, the Woodwork Series from Revelation Cat uses a double IPA as its base, and consumers can taste versions aged in French oak, American oak, and acasia. Revelation Cat is a project based out of Italy, though these beers were brewed in Belgium, and these beers release is an exciting development for the craft beer scene in both countries...
The other series comes from Denmark’s Mikkeller. The project of Mikkel Borg Bjergso, Mikeller is a so-called gypsy brewery since he/it does not own an actual brewhouse of his own. He collaborates with different brewers throughout Northern Europe to produce his beers. Like Mikkeller single-hop IPA series, this new series—of barrel-aged imperial stouts—does a great service for brewers who want to know what the flavor impact of a particular ingredient is on a controlled base beer. Call it flavor science for beer.
I was recently lucky enough to get to do a horizontal tasting of all four of the new Mikkeller beers—Black Hole Imperial Stout aged in wine, rum, bourbon, and Scotch barrels each. The impromptu tasting panel that I was part of consisted of myself, Oregon Beer Odyssey’s Rob Bosworth, The Hop and Vine’s Yetta Vorobik, Angelo de Ieso II from Brewpublic, and Sean White who works at Green Bottling, Alameda Brewhouse, and Breakside Brewery. Below are our notes on these unique beers; it turns out that using different barrels on the same beer produces quite different results. As with any ingredient, each type of barrel will require a certain mastery of handling in order to coax out the best flavors and mesh with the base beer. As it turns out, Mikkeller’s best effort was his/its first in our tasting lineup.
Beer #1: Barrel-Aged Black Hole, Wine Barrel
“What type of wine barrel was it?” wondered the most wine-savvy of our group. Very strong, coffee and berry-like aromas. Nice smooth mouthfeel with big sweet stout flavors up front—chocolate, coffee, licorice, followed by a vinous, cherry-like finish. Finish has a velvety texture to it. Knowing the type of wine used would allow for a better understanding of the interplay between grape and malt flavors. Nicely balanced with a hint of oak character coming through. Everyone agreed that this was the most well-balanced and approachable of the four expressions. Range of ratings: 4.0-4.5/5
Beer #2: Barrel-Aged Black Hole, Rum Barrel
This beer is hot—big higher alcohol flavors and aromas, and it has a much harsher all-around quality. Some rum spiciness manages to come through in the flavor, as does some of the wood character, but it is really hard to get past the lack of balance between the malt and barrel characters. Much of the sweetness that we saw in the first beer is lost to a rough, peppery flavor that dominates this expression. “Does anyone know of other rum-aged beers?” asked one taster, “Maybe there’s a reason not.” (To be fair, Grand Lake Brewing in Grand Lake, CO does a strong ale aged in rum barrels called Holy Grail that doesn’t have any of the hotness or imbalance that this beer does). Range of ratings: 2.5-3.5/5
Beer #3: Barrel-Aged Black Hole, Whiskey Version
Presumably aged in bourbon barrels, this beer is much smoother than the rum-aged version with a some of the classic vanilla character that one would expect from a bourbon-barrel aged beer. The oak aroma is very pronounced. One taster wished we had done whisky before rum because the aggressiveness of Beer #2 hid a lot of the liquor flavor in the whiskey version. Mouthfeel is prickly and mildly astringent; still almost no hop character anywhere on the palate. More balanced flavor-wise than the rum-version but still slightly imbalanced toward a ‘woody’ flavor. Range of ratings: 3.5-4/5
Beer #4: Barrel-Aged Black Hole, Scotch Version
“I love smoked beers, but this tastes like a campfire.” One taster was unable to finish his sample and poured it down the drain. All the stout character is hidden beneath an impenetrable cloak of smokiness and peat. Flavors of tar, charcoal, smoked meat, dirty grill, and a recently-doused campfire. Virtually no balance to the flavors and the mouthfeel seems to exacerbate the beer’s roughness. “Time to move on to another beer.” Range of ratings: 1.5-2.5/5