This week’s Canada’s Craft Beer post comes from our Eastern Canada craft beer guy, David Ort, as he explores the intersection between beer and wine... in a barrel!
Wine and beer have traditionally met at the awkward and arbitrary point between afternoon drinks and with-dinner libations. But we’re working on that, right? We’ve found a place for beer with our meals and are enjoying various delightful pairings. I’d like to add another bit of territory to the list we’ve captured from wine and discuss wine-barrel-aged beer.
The concept is simple: Take a barrel that a winery has used to age their product, fill it with beer, and wait until that beer has drawn distinctive characteristics from the oak and wine that stains it. In some cases, the beer is exposed to the complexity-adding powers of brettanomyces, a wild yeast that winemakers go to great lengths to avoid, but is occasionally welcome in the brewhouse.
Given that the wine industries in Ontario and BC are even better established than craft beer, barrels are available and consumers understand the benefits they can lend. This month we have two excellent examples of wine barrel-aged beers for you to consider.
Microbrasserie Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Double Zinfandel
The standard Dominus Vobiscum Double has won a fistful of awards including bronze at the Canadian Brewing Awards in both 2009 and 2012. For this special release, Microbrasserie Charlevoix have blended batches aged in French and American oak, respectively, with fresh beer. The dubbel is dark auburn brown with a light tan head that sticks around for a minute or so. Dark-fruit aromas and flavours (blueberries in particular) are seasoned with vanilla notes from the oak and gain complexity from the floral background. There is a touch of sweet-on-sweet among the beer’s notable elements, so I do miss the carbonation it has lost while in the barrel.
Most who try this special version will have already had the regular DV Double, so this is an especially good opportunity to isolate the effect barrel ageing can have on a well-made beer.
ABV 9.3% Available in QC
Nickel Brook Winey Bastard Imperial Stout
For this release, the Burlington, ON brewery, Nickel Brook, took their excellent Bolshevik Bastard imperial stout and aged it in Niagara-area pinot noir barrels. It’s pitch black body and soft and creamy tan foam come from the base beer, but the barrels take over from there. The dark roasted chocolate and coffee notes are elevated and highlighted by blueberry, tart cherry, and vinous elements. The complete picture is like a beguiling take on black forest cake. This spectacular bottle will continue to age well, but I wouldn’t take it further than a year for fear of losing some of the fruit’s brightness.
ABV 8.5% Available in ON
Craft beer is steadily expanding its audience and making a convincing case for appreciating quality beer, rather than focussing only on quantity. That said, barrels and time are both added costs, so we won’t be returning to the 19th century status quo of breweries ageing up to a third of their annual production in oak. For now, this will be a niche curiosity, but definitely one with fans who will seek out these special bottles.
David Ort writes about food, travel, and craft beer for various online and print publications. His first book, The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook, is in bookstores and available for purchase online. For more of his thoughts on all things edible and potable follow him on Twitter or get in touch with him at email@example.com.