When Becky and Scott Harris founded Loudoun County’s Catoctin Creek Distillingand released their first rye whiskey in 2010, opportunists came looking for used barrels. There were restaurateurs who wanted to sling barrel-aged cocktails, artisans envisioning barrel-aged maple syrup and, of course, brewers.
“By and large we give preference to the breweries,” Scott Harris says, adding that he has seen bargoers drain a keg of barrel-aged beer in eight minutes flat. “The flavors of the grain-based spirit with the grain-based beer are just so complementary.”
Throughout the Washington area — and especially now that chilly weather has made boozy ales appropriate — brewers and consumers are recognizing whiskey’s affinity for its lower-alcohol cousin. They are appreciating the nuances that only barrels can impart, which include vanilla and oak. What’s more, as whiskey-barrel beers, often thick porters and stouts, become common locally, brewers are moving beyond these craft-beer mainstays, hoping to dabble in barrels used to age wine, gin, and even mezcal and tequila.
To be sure, wood-aged beer isn’t new. Wooden fermentation vessels dominated pre-industrial brewing, and barrel-aging has been part of craft beer for decades. Barrett Lauer, head brewer at the District ChopHouse & Brewery, says the ChopHouse first brewed its bourbon-barrel oatmeal stout in 1996. But he adds that the price of the barrels he uses has jumped by 50 percent in the past two years as more brewers have discovered what happens when you mature beer in a whiskey vessel.
“The longer you let it mature, the more character,” he says. “Vanilla, sometimes some coconut flavor, mocha, cedar, burnt sugar. Sometimes I even get a little bit of marshmallow and coffee.”
One newcomer that has entered the marshmallow and coffee arena is DC Brau, Catoctin Creek’s biggest barrel customer. “We’re trying to make a big push with our porter,” says head brewer Jeff Hancock, referring to the whiskey-barrel version of his Penn Quarter Porter. “We’re going to be making it pretty much a year-round offering.”
Hancock also hopes to obtain mezcal or tequila barrels, and he has used Catoctin Creek’s fruit-brandy barrels to age occasional beers, such as a riff on the Middle Name Danger hoppy saison he brewed with Brian Strumke of Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales.
“We aged that one in a peach-brandy barrel,” Hancock says. “I wished I’d actually bottled some and saved it for a rainy day. Or a beer competition.”
His approach encapsulates how, when it comes to barrels, local brewers are both sticking with tried-and-true styles and aging vessels and distinguishing themselves with experimentation.
That contrast was evident at a recent holiday bash at 3 Stars Brewing’s Takoma facility, during which the brewery unleashed a Bulleit bourbon version of its Pandemic Porter. As guests sipped the ale, which smelled like coconut and tasted like coffee and milk chocolate, they stood near racks of wine barrels that 3 Stars is storing for Right Proper Brewing, the forthcoming D.C. brewpub. Right Proper will use the barrels for offbeat sour ales fermented with wild yeast.
Bluejacket, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group brewery, will have an extensive barrel-aging program when it opens near Nationals Park in several months. Then there’s the latest new player in the D.C. scene, Atlas Brew Works, which recently announced that it would open on Bladensburg Road in early 2013.
“I’m sure you’ll see some bourbon barrels or some neutral oak barrels in the brewery before too long,” head brewer Will Durgin says. “I’ve also had some success with gin barrels. I honestly thought it was a horrible idea at the time, but it came out really nicely.”
Still, whiskey-barrel beers remain much more approachable, although they are often syrupy and alcoholic — more like liqueurs than Budweiser. A good starting point, if you can find it, is Goose Island’s sought-after Bourbon County Stout, which smells like a caramel latte and tastes like cacao nibs, espresso and vanilla.
“It has become a highly sought-after beer,” says Amy Bowman, co-owner of the Adams Morgan beer bar the Black Squirrel. “I think that beer in particular really introduced people to these new flavors.” But Bowman acknowledges that Bourbon County can be especially hard to find. DC Brau’s barrel-aged porter and the 3 Stars bourbon Pandemic are more reasonable targets.
Whichever you try, one thing is certain. This holiday season, local brewers have visions of barrels dancing in their heads.
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.