Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ben Likes Bourbon (Aged Beer)

Believe it or not, I drink other things. This should not be shocking - I do not subsist entirely on beer from morning to night, though I might wish I could (blah blah, social norms). If I did, I would almost assuredly exist in a buzzed, 300 lb stupor, and believe it or not even the creative industry requires some mental clarity. I'm sober right now, actually. Thanks for the applause.

But I'm not actually talking about tea, or orange juice, or bottled water (Ben Likes Bottled Water coming soon), I mean I drink other alcoholic things, especially when you can learn about beer by doing so. A lot of the distilling and flavoring processes have quite a bit in common  So, with that in mind, let's learn a bit about bourbon, shall we?

Bourbon is, for the sake of grand simplification, American Whisky. It's gotta be made in America to garner the term bourbon, and it was even declared America's "Native Spirit" by Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. But there's a bit more than shoving a MADE IN THE USA sticker on a bottle of whisky and calling it a day; there are standards. 

Corn, for example. The little golden nugget that has ingrained (heh...ingrained...plant puns) itself in nearly everything we eat is actually an integral part of bourbon. To be a bourbon, corn must represent at least 51% of the grain mixture, though in many cases it makes it up upward toward 70% or more, with the rest being wheat, rye or barley. And that's not just because of availability; corn tends to be the sweetest grain, which is an important distinction of bourbon.

The grain is then ground, added to water (the mix is called a mash), and exposed to yeast and allowed to ferment. Sound familiar?

The result is a clear liquid of no more than 160 proof which is then put into barrels where that bourbony goodness - the color and flavor - comes from. But this is where the major distinction comes from- to be bourbon, the barrels have to be new charred American White Oak. Other varieties - Scotch, Canadian Whisky, etc - can reuse previously utilized barrels. Bourbon can't.

Bourbon barrels. Makes me wanna play Donkey Kong. 
And this is where the crossover comes into play. All of those great bourbon flavors afforded by those barrels lend themselves really, really well to beer. Two cases in point:

Brrrbon '12 
Widmer Brothers
Portland, Oregon
Alchemy Project Seasonal Ale
9.4% ABV

22 oz. Bottle, Tulip Glass 

Following the initial brewing process, Widmer Bro's Brrrbon spends a four month stint in those special barrels we talked about. The result is a coppery, transparent brew with a thick off-white head. And exceptionally, remarkably smooth. I can't emphasize that enough; Brrbon is ridiculously smooth. As in, it could go down like ice tea if you let it. I'm really not sure how they did it, actually.

Image from Widmer Brothers 

And that's what's unusual about it, actually. It has the woody nose of bourbon, but not quite the bite you'd expect, or want. It's oddly friendly. There are hints of the bourbon flavor to be certain, with the burnt wood winning out, but the malty sweetness is more prevalent, with the tinge of hops bringing up the tail. There are certainly wintery qualities to it (hence the name), most notably the toasty flavors.

The beer is a solid introduction to Bourbon Beers, given it's "gentle" nature, but I think it could have afforded a few more months in the barrels to really instill it with those powerful flavors. As it stands, the flavors are pretty subtle and it doesn't quite pack the punch you want it to.

The Abyss 2012 Reserve 
Deschutes Brewery
Bend, Oregon
Imperial Stout
11.1% ABV

22 oz. Bottle, Pint Glass 

While Brrrbon might have been a friendly introduction to the world of Bourbon-aged beers, Abyss is a brutal, affronting cataclysm of a beer (the website touts the headline "Ten beers that will make you a man...if they don't kill you first"), and I pretty much love it.

Abyss is a limited-edition annual beer from Deschutes that takes the barrel aging to another level: portions are sent to age in both wine and bourbon barrels, lending qualities of both to the final creation. It's an extremely dark, nearly black and perfectly opaque concoction with a head that looks like chocolate milk. And there's no wonder - it takes its flavorings from every "dark" ingredient imaginable; licorice, molasses, oak and chocolate and vanilla all take their turn on your pallet, with the chocolate malts appearing most prominently.

But more important, really, is that the "oomph" of a bourbon is here and accounted for. The oaky qualities, the potent warmth. There are complex layers at play here, with sweetness from the molasses and a nice touch of bitter, and they manage to be distinct while still playing remarkably well together. It's a genuinely interesting brew that only becomes more interesting when paired with food (I sampled it with pretzels, and the salt multiplied the flavors considerably).

Even more interesting, the beer includes an "Enjoy After" date, well into 2013. That doesn't mean you have to wait until then, but it does transform the beer into an entirely different experience (this is called cellaring a beer, just like wine - but we'll go over that in another post). Me, personally, though, I couldn't hold off. The beer is that great. Find it. It's worth the price tag.

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