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.
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.
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.
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.
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