Flavor That Grows on Trees

At the District ChopHouse, brewer Barrett Lauer seasons his Bourbon Stout in wooden barrels that flavor the beer and boost its alcohol content.
At the District ChopHouse, brewer Barrett Lauer seasons his Bourbon Stout in wooden barrels that flavor the beer and boost its alcohol content. (By Alexander D. Mitchell Iv)
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By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Beer and wood have had a falling out since the industrial age began. Even when breweries didn't switch to stainless steel, they tended to line wooden barrels and fermenters with pitch or a similar substance to prevent off-flavors.

What about that vaunted Budweiser beechwood-aging process? Anheuser-Busch places beechwood chips in its lagering tanks to provoke a livelier fermentation. But the chips have been thoroughly washed in water and baking soda to keep them from imparting even a hint of wood to the beer.

Some American craft breweries, however, are using wood aging as an additional source of flavor.

Two Chicago area breweries, Goose Island Beer and Flossmoor Station Restaurant Brewery, began storing beer in used bourbon barrels in the mid-1990s; closer to home, the District ChopHouse & Brewery became one of the first East Coast breweries to pick up on the idea, offering Bourbon Stout since shortly after its founding in 1997.

Though previous ChopHouse brewers obtained barrels from several distilleries, current brewer Barrett Lauer has standardized the process, using only Woodford Reserve barrels. Lauer also instituted a "one and done" policy: After a single use, the whiskey cask is converted into planters or tables. "I've even chopped some up to use for smoking meats at home," he says.

Before the new policy, the beer might reek of bourbon or exhibit little whiskey flavor at all, depending on whether the cask was on its first or third run-through. Now the Bourbon Stout has a more consistent flavor, with a strong bourbon presence upfront followed by nuances of roast, black cherry, vanilla and toasted coconut as the pint warms up. The dregs of bourbon inside the wood bump up the alcohol from 6.2 percent by volume to about 7 percent, Lauer estimates. The ChopHouse doesn't sell its brews off-premises, so to try this boilermaker of a beer, you'll have to visit the restaurant.

But Old Dominion Brewing in Ashburn offers its Dominion Oak Barrel Stout in 12-ounce bottles; it is one of the first wood-aged beers to be packaged on a regular basis. According to Scott Zetterstrom, vice president of brewing operations, the beer is aged for a week on oak planks and vanilla beans. The brewery adds a pinch of peat-smoked malt, which shows up as a spicy, almost baconlike note in the aroma.

Oak Barrel Stout is a softer and mellower example of the style, with vanilla and butterscotch smoothing over the smoke and bittersweet chocolate flavors.

Also bottled year-round is Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale from Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif. The brewery delights in taunting its customers. "It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate an ale of this quality or depth," reads the screed on the back of the bottle.

But Stone backs up its boast. This American strong ale, aged over oak chips, has a powerful grapefruit and pineapple aroma, a caramel malt sweetness and a lingering dry finish: part hop and part tannin.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., houses a forest of wooden vessels, including several 10,000-gallon aging tanks crafted with palo santo wood from Paraguay. Owner Sam Calagione says they are the largest wooden brewing vessels built in America in the post-Prohibition era.

The exotic hardwood is so dense that it sinks in water and can rebuff machetes and even bullets. Dogfish Head's Palo Santo Marron is a strong brown ale (a formidable 12 percent alcohol by volume) with a wealth of dark-chocolate and roasty flavors; notes of vanilla, raisins and plums; and a sweet, sappy flavor reminiscent of spruce. Calagione plans to offer the beer year-round in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles.

Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine, specializes in Belgian-style beers, several of which are aged in oak barrels. Among them is Allagash Odyssey, a strong (10.4 percent alcohol by volume), ebony-colored, wheat-based ale available in 750-milliliter corked bottles.

This wonderfully complex brew combines the dryness of toasted oak with the sweet, rich flavor of a fruitcake soaked in spirits. The brewery advises pairing it with almond-crusted chicken, filet mignon or creme brulee. My advice: Save it for after dinner, when you retire to the drawing room for brandy and cigars. But forget the brandy; you won't need it.

Consumer alert: Boston Beer has been recalling certain 12-ounce bottles of its Samuel Adams brands that might contain small grains of glass. The defective bottles bear the code N35 embossed at the base followed by the letters OI. The company is offering a full refund to anyone who bought the bottles. Contact Boston Beer at 888-674-5159 or http://www.samadams.com.

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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