Tag Archives: barrel-aged beer

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

For this, the eighty-third installment of The Session, Rebecca of The Bake and Brew puts forward the notion of tasting “against the grain.” She urges us to consider how much our taste or opinion of a craft beer is affected by a few of the following factors: hype, taste inflation, the opinions of friends, and the ubiquitous ratings pumped out by the craft beer community. I’ll address this fascinating topic in more than one installment over the coming weeks. Today’s first part grapples with our taste for extremes; a subsequent installment will deal with how we can challenge these canons in our everyday drinking lives.

Session Friday - Logo 1A Taste for the Extremes

To drink craft beer is to make a statement. The connotations of this statement are multivalent, ranging from support of local business and agriculture to rejection of bland beverages. It is also a declaration of taste that gives rise to distinctions. Drinking craft beer often means going against the grain of mass marketed beers.

But the craft beer tasting community is itself marked by distinctions and hegemonies. “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it,” wrote the great Weimar German literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. As a leftist thinker faced with the rise of fascism, Benjamin’s concerns were of much greater consequence than the question of craft beer tastes, but his words help put us in the frame of mind for critiquing the dominant craft beer tastes of the moment.

Heavily hopped beers have achieved a certain preeminence on the North American craft beer stage, to the point where it wouldn’t be a stretch to speak of a virtual conformism gripping the North American craft beer imagination. Craft breweries and brewpubs that do not have at least one iteration of the American-style IPA along with several other Pacific Northwest-inflected hoppy brews are almost as rare as sightings of the elusive sasquatch.Sasquatch - Wiki Sour beers, barrel-aged beers, and imperial XYZs also compete for our attention on the periphery of this conformity that, ironically, seeks out the extremes of novelty, rarity, and intensity. Just as Robert Parker defined the taste of a generation of wine drinkers in the United States and beyond, contemporary media convergences in North America have dialed in a rather predictable palate. If enough writers at X Magazine, raters at Y Website, or judges at Z Competition suggest that styles of particular intensity are the embodiment of the American beer renaissance, a canon of taste is born.

In a recent article analyzing how rating sites such as Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have molded the North American craft beer palate over the past several years, Bryan Roth of This Is Why I’m Drunk uncovers a surprising trend. Isolating styles and brands that occupy the top twenty spots on these sites’ respective yearly “best of” lists, Roth observes that ABVs (alcohol-by-volume) have fallen off rather steeply from a consistent average of 11.45-11.53% ABV between 2007 and 2010, to a relatively meager 9.76% in 2013. (Yes, you read that correctly. Now you can pause for a moment to catch your breath. The top twenty beers on these lists averaged around 11.5% ABV for four years running.) Roth’s account of this three-year downward trend is convincing enough. The explosion in the number of breweries has translated into ever more variety as these newcomers seek to distinguish themselves among an increasingly crowded field of bottles, cans, and tap handles.

But I think there’s more to it, something we can’t merely reduce to variety driving down the average ABV of “top-ranked” beers. ABV may continue to drop, but this may have less to do with an embrace of sessionability than it does with the recent rise in popularity of sours and saisons (usually of lower ABV) in North America. We’d even be justified in drawing an analogy between the infatuation with high ABV and the recent turn to sours and funky beers. Arguably, these fruits of wild yeast and bacteria are, in North America at any rate, markers of a taste for the extreme. I may be wrong, but I suspect we won’t see a lager inhabiting any top-ten spots on these lists any time soon – unless it’s an imperial lager geared to appeal to a North American craft beer palate primed for big and intense flavours.

More often than not, though, these amped-up offerings are overrated reflections of a palate bias for particular styles and intensities. And if you’ll allow the generalization, it is a palate that sometimes confuses boldness and intensity with quality.

I’m aware of the risks of making such a sweeping pronouncement. As seventeenth-century master of the epigram, François de La Rochefoucauld, once noted, “Our pride suffers condemnation of our tastes with greater indignation than attacks on our opinions.” LaRouchefoucauld - Maximes (Wiki Fr)So let me modulate what I just wrote lest I lose half my readership. I’ve often been misunderstood by friends who think I don’t appreciate hops. I do. I just don’t think that beer should be a mere vehicle for hop character. It also doesn’t mean I think that bourbon barrel-aged beers and sour beers can’t be “good” – in fact, these styles are among my favourites.

That said, I wouldn’t be the first commentator to observe that the multitude of “best of” lists tends to give short shrift to subtlety in beer craftsmanship. Like lagers, for example. You’d be hard pressed to find a refreshingly austere northern German pilsener or a Märzen (Oktoberfest beer) with a deeply complex malt profile among the American-style IPAs, the imperial stouts, and, increasingly, the wild-fermented and/or barrel-aged beers that round out many a “best of” list.

But if the rumblings issuing forth from some quarters are any indication, 2014 might well signal grounds for hope. Beer writers like Bryan Roth represent a segment of the craft beer community concerned with how ratings drive consumption. Among this growing chorus of critical voices, John Frank has written a newly-minted article stressing a return to sanity and focus on quality, and Jeff Alworth of Beervana hails the return of lagers to the Pacific Northwest, a region where you couldn’t give them away a few years back. As an avowed malt head, I’ll drink to those potential changes.


Postscript: You can read my follow-up article on beer and taste here:

Tasting Against the Craft Beer Grain

Other Related Tempest Articles:

The MaltHead Manifesto

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Image Sources:

Sasquatch: Wikipedia

La Rochefoucauld: Wikipedia (France)

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.


Bourbon Squared: Maple-Glazed Pork Belly Meets Barrel-Aged Beer

’Tis the season for rich dishes that combat cold evenings. If you’re looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous turkey (or if you just plain like pork), this dish echoes the flavours and aromas of the bourbon barrel-aged beers I featured last weekend. It would also accent the maltiness of English-style barley wine quite nicely. Serve your favourite kale dish as a side so that you don’t feel too bad about eating and drinking such an ample combination.

Maple-Glazed Bourbon and Apple Cider Pork Belly



  • 2.5 to 3 lbs pork belly, rubbed generously with coarse sea salt and pepper
  • 1.5 cups apple cider
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 pinches salt (to taste)
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery sticks, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp mixed peppercorns
  • ¼ cup dry vermouth
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup for the glaze


Rub pork eight hours beforehand or, preferably, the night before. Remove from fridge about twenty to thirty minutes before cooking and preheat oven to 300 degrees. While the pork is coming up to room temperature, prepare the vegetables and the braising liquid (apple cider, bourbon, chicken stock, apple cider vinegar, salt, peppercorns, bay leaves).

Heat about 1 tbsp oil in a heavy casserole. Cut the slab of pork in half, and brown each piece over medium-high heat, one at a time, until golden brown. Drain fat, reserving 1.5 tbsp.

Add the vegetables to the reserved fat and sauté. Scrape all of this to the side, and deglaze with the pot with vermouth. Gently score the fat side of the pork belly slabs, return to the pot, and  add the braising liquid. Bring up close to a boil and, if need be, adjust salt level before placing in the oven.

Cook in oven for 2 hours, and then turn the oven down to 200 degrees for the next 1.5 hours or so.

Remove pot from the oven, and remove the pork slabs. Strain and de-fat the sauce, and then begin reducing it. While the sauce is reducing, add the maple syrup. Continue Reducing until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.

Cut the pork slab into large cubes, and crisp each fat side in a skillet or stainless steel pan over medium-high heat. Place on a plate, and spoon the glaze over the cubes.

Wine complements this dish just as well as beer. A lighter red wine would do just fine, but don’t forget about the compelling possibilities of white wine. Try an aged Chenin Blanc from the Loire region of France – an excellent match with the maple and bourbon in the glaze – or even a crisp sparkling wine from California or the Finger Lakes.

Bon Appétit!

Related Tempest Articles

The Fonduementals of Beer and Cider: Recipes to Warm Your Weekend

Bourbon in Michigan: Barrel-Aged Beer along the Great Lakes

A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie’s Pirate Bomb, Goose Island’s Bourbon County, Victory’s Dark Intrigue

© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Bourbon in Michigan: Barrel-Aged Beer along the Great Lakes

With its rich aromas and flavours, bourbon barrel-aged beer evokes late fall hues and heralds the coming of winter. In this, the first of what I intend be an occasional series of posts tracking barrel-aged and sour beers across North America, I sample some of what the Michigan shores of the Great Lakes have to offer: Founders’ Backwoods Bastard, and New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk.

Despite its recent and growing popularity, barrel-aged beer is far from new. Lambic and Flemish red ales call to mind examples of traditional European beer production in which wooden barrels have long been a fixture. What is relatively novel and entirely indigenous to the United States, though, is the selection of a particular vessel for aging beer: the bourbon barrel. Goose Island’s venerable Bourbon County Stout dates back to 1992 and is, according to the brewery, the beer that originated the bourbon barrel-aged category.

Beer Barrels 2

On this side of the pond, bourbon has made a distinct and indelible impression on the craft beer drinker’s palate – to the tune of seven bourbon barrel-aged beers occupying the first twenty-five spots on BeerAdvocate’s “Top 250 Beers” list. Not only is the acronym “BAB” gaining traction, barrel-aged beer now has its own feast day of sorts inscribed on the craft beer calendar. For those who missed out on this year’s Barrel-Aged Beer Day, mark October 3, 2014, on your calendars so that you, too, can partake of the excitement of yet another “Beer Style XYZ Day.”

The Great Lakes region is home to a number of reputable bourbon beers. Along with Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, Three Floyds in Indiana produces a series of bourbon barrel-aged offerings that have included renditions of their Black Sun Stout and Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. Michigan, too, has no shortage of renowned bourbon beers, with bourbon-inspired variations of Bell’s Black Note Stout, Dark Horse’s Plead the 5th Imperial Stout, and Short’s Bourbon Wizard Barley Wine, offering craft beer enthusiasts some compelling choices along the way. (Like many brewers that have been bitten by the barrel bug, Dark Horse rolls out not one, but several, bourbon beer offerings.) So entrenched has the enthusiasm for bourbon beers become that Carson’s American Bistro in Ann Arbor is poised this Thursday to offer an autumnal repast of Citrus-Cured Pork Belly, Duck Confit, and Pumpkin Tres Leches Cake to pair with a selection of bourbon beers.

If you’re in the market for some bourbon beer to pair with your own Thanksgiving feast, and if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with solid distribution of “Michigan bourbons,” neither Founders’ Backwoods Bastard Scotch-style ale nor New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk stout will let you down.

The 2013 edition of Dragon’s Milk has teeth aplenty, clocking in at a weighty 23 degrees Plato and 10% ABV.

NewHolland DragonsMilk 1

The aromas of this ruby-tinged dark brown beer layer a mélange of earthy vanilla-butterscotch oak tones on top of high-octane mocha coffee reminiscent, at times, of Kahlua. Dark cherry, maple syrup, black pepper, and licorice mingle with the malt aromas. A little like liquid brown sugar on the palate, the beer has a velvety texture checked by a firm hand with the bittering hops, reprising the dominant fruit, wood, and mocha aroma notes. An ideal accompaniment to dishes accented with sweeter sauces (maple syrup-glazed pork belly, anyone?), and, of course, dessert.

Founders’ Backwoods Bastard also carries a daunting 10.2% ABV, sure to induce a sound sleep if consumed alongside one too many crème brulées.

FoundersBackwood 3-pack

The bottle I had was from 2012, so wood aromatics of cinnamon sticks and sandalwood from the aging process formed a nice accompaniment to the complex Ovaltine-like malt and vanilla bean nuances. As this elegant brick-red/pecan-brown beer opened up, oak, shortbread, and brown sugar-dusted earthy licorice came to the fore. Expansive and incredibly buoyant on the palate for its ABV heft, Backwoods intertwines flavours of honeyed figs, black cherry, and spice box, with a warming and lasting bright bourbon cherry finish.

New Holland is drinking well now, but could use more time to round out the rougher edges of the roasted coffee, bitter-sweet chocolate, and sharper alcohol tones. With an extra year of age to its advantage, the Founders was more settled and harmonious, presenting an exquisite balance between fruit and malt characteristics of milk caramel, toasted toffee, and molasses-brown sugar.

For some fun, why not practice your blending skills to produce a “Backwoods Dragon”? And don’t forget to drink these beers on the warm side of cellar temperature.

Related Tempest Articles

Bourbon Squared: Maple-Glazed Pork Belly Meets Barrel-Aged Beer

A Trio of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts: Prairie’s Pirate Bomb, Goose Island’s Bourbon County, Victory’s Dark Intrigue

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.