An Introduction to Barrel-Aging Beer
I was recently asked to join a press trip to Scotland, with the intention of understanding a little more about the process and thinking behind the use of repurposed oak barrels for Innis and Gunn. As Craft Beer continues its still steeply inclined arc through a blue sky of growth, many different facets of beer and brewing pop up get thoroughly investigated, experimented with, and promoted, some falling by the wayside as is natural. Brut IPA is perhaps an example of that. Still available here and there and some very good examples remain, but they’re not ubiquitous as they were perhaps last year.
Barrel ageing of beer is a different prospect, however. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that Innis and Gunn are very well regarded in this field, and rightly so. Oak barrels are expensive, and for good reason. The wood is expensive and American white oak is one of the preferred choices. It imparts great flavour and aroma to liquids stored in it, which is why people will pay a lot of money for an oak barrel. Couple the initial cost of getting a white oak to maturity, perhaps between 80-120 years, to the sheer skill and artisanal abilities needed to get it formed into a barrel, and it’s no surprise that a single quality oak barrel can cost nearly one thousand pounds!
Scotland is one of my favourite countries in the world. Living in London it’s sort of on my doorstep in world terms, so I should really visit more often. Flying up to Inverness, a small group of like-minded people and esteemed beer writers assembled and we headed off to Craigellachie to find our hotel for that evening and make our first stop at Speyside Cooperage.
We met with Dougal Sharp, owner and head honcho of Innis and Gunn in Craigellachie, and then headed the short distance over to the cooperage. As you turn off the road and drive into the grounds, you don’t really get an impression of the size of the facility until you’re actually in its midst. Aside from producing brand new barrels, which are exported to America for use with Bourbon and other spirits, many barrels return across the Atlantic to be re-purposed for many more cycles of use. A barrel can have many repeated uses, from its virgin state through many iterations, and be carefully dissembled and repaired and rebuilt until the staves or outer wooden planks become too thin. Incredibly an Oak barrel can have a lifetime of 100+ years! Speyside Cooperage is Innis and Gunn’s supplier of barrels for its range of barrel-aged beers. Bourbon and Rum Barrels are selected and then dissembled, repaired, reassembled and tested at Speyside Cooperage before being transported to Innis and Gunn’s brewery in Perth to be filled with beer, or chipped and carefully toasted for Innis and Gunn’s “Barrel into Beer” method. The second method is being adopted by a number of other breweries now, but Innis and Gunn and Dougal Sharp most certainly originated this concept for beer.
The scale of operations at Speyside Cooperage was impressive, slightly Steampunk-like with the huge steam machines and barrel charring flamethrowers, and the Coopers marching back and forth selecting barrels that had been steamed and loosened, and then wildly (yet very skilfully) beating the hoops off and expertly dissembling them. Staves and hoops were checked, end plates examined, things beaten, shaved, adjusted, reassembled, resealed and then rolled over to the chap responsible for pressure testing them. Only when he was happy that the barrel was perfect was the barrel signed off and the Cooper then assigned to be paid for it. As with many old trades, it was piece-work, with pay being given per-barrel. Some Coopers were legendary for the speed and accuracy of their work!
Amongst all the noise and flames and steam and busy coopers, (who were very tolerant of a bunch of beer journalists slightly getting in their way) we were treated to a glass of Innis and Gunn’s Original straight from the barrel.
After the amazing assault on one’s senses at the cooperage, we travelled on to Ballindalloch Distillery to see a first user of new barrels.
Ballindalloch is a very young whisky distiller, but not to be underestimated in any way. Whisky needs to be 3 years old before you can actually legally call it whisky. Ballindalloch’s is now 4 years old, yet they don’t plan to release it until it’s 8 years old! That’s one hell of a dodgy business plan in logical terms, but the investment pays off if you get things right. Ballindalloch is carving itself a little niche of what would potentially be called “Craft Whisky” Small production, using the best materials and ingredients available. Ballindalloch estate produces its own Barley, which it has Malted in Scotland and then transported back for its own use. The terroir for Ballindalloch Whisky is entirely from its own locality and its own land. That’s pretty impressive! We were treated to a sample of the base spirit before it was placed into the barrels. Once over the palate shock of it being 63% ABV, it was amazing how fruity, and even at that stage complex it was. Even as a clear spirit, hints of caramel and raisins were obvious, and a floral overtone also present. Ballindalloch was aiming for a classic Speyside Whisky, but done extremely well. They seem to be right on target, but we’ll have to wait 4 years yet!
After the insight into the old art of cooperage, we travelled back to our nearby hotel and had a short rest before heading down to the restaurant for a beer paired meal. We started with hot smoked salmon, with wild garlic creme fraiche and pickled shallots, paired with Innis and Gunn Original. The warming notes of bourbon worked very well with the smoked element of the salmon, and the pickled shallots cut through the dish lightly, just to refresh the taste buds.
The second course was pancetta-wrapped haggis, with truffle mashed potato Confit Neeps and apple vinaigrette, served with Innis and Gunn Blood Red Sky. Blood Red Sky is a rum aged red. While haggis and rum is not the kind of choice I would easily jump to, but it really does work. It’s like for like as the tasting goes but efficiently adds to the warm meaty, spiciness of haggis.
The main course was a stunning seared lamb shepherd’s pie, with the gravy made with Innis and Gunn Gunpowder IPA. There is a notable London based high-end Indian restaurant that does a rogan josh shepherd’s pie so good I wondered if it would ever be equalled. Well, this one did! Served with Innis and Gunn Gunpowder IPA this was a counterpoint pairing. The richness of the shepherd’s pie and the slight fattiness of the Lamb was cleansed and refreshed by the IPA, allowing you to delve back in for another hit of rich food.
The desert was a Scottish strawberry (the best!) and hazelnut mille-feuille with strawberry sorbet.
This was paired with Innis and Gunn’s yearly released Vanishing Point Imperial Stout. This is a small batch that is aged for a full year in first-fill Bourbon barrels. This is a sipping beer at 11% ABV and a perfect companion to a rich dessert. Why choose a dessert wine when something of this complexity and character is the alternative. I’d go so far to say, that at this price point for a glass to accompany an excellent desert, you would be spending 3-4 times the amount to come even close to a desert wine that does as good a job, and way more to find a Port that would have the same character. With the meal over, we retired to the bar at the end of a fascinating day of tasting and education.
The next morning saw us gather for breakfast before heading south, through some of Scotland most beautiful scenery in the Grampian mountains, heading south to Perth for a final rendezvous with Dougal at the Innis and Gunn brewery in Perth.
We started with a light buffet lunch and were then invited to try a couple of special barrel-aged beers, one of which was the next iteration of Vanishing Point, and will become VP03. It was interesting to taste in and compare it to the previous night’s VP02. It has the same base character of an imperial stout but was subtly different. This is what you get with barrel-aged beers. Every barrel will be a little different and will impart a different degree of character to the liquid it contains. Beer is Science…. but it’s also Art. Barrel-ageing is where that art is given a bit of free rein and relies upon the skill of the brewer to define what he or she wants.
Dougal Sharp has steered Innis and Gunn through a number of significant steps up in its life as a brewing company. From the initial concept to enabling it via contract brewing. Then on to acquire and join with Inveralmond brewery and put down solid infrastructure and facilities. As with any growing business though, expansion is necessary, and Innis and Gunn are moving forward with their plans for a larger bespoke, purpose-built brewery with room to double their output immediately, and potentially double it again in time. The brewery will be in the Edinburgh area, and the largest constructed there for 150 years. This is solid, proper well thought out expansion. There is no boom or bust here, and Innis and Gunn have already proven they can play a longer game by involving themselves in barrel-aged products. The new brewery will be brewing its first batch on New year’s day 2021. Much like all of Innis and Gunn’s previous work, this has been well thought out and properly done. I would be quietly confident that this date is firm and personally I look forward to trying many beers from the new brewery!
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Innis and Gunn
Innis and Gunn can be found at https://www.innisandgunn.com
For more pairings with Innis and Gunn check out my review of a recent dinner at Hix Smithfields
And for wider beer and food pairings we recommend Adam Handling’s series of dinners at Bean and Wheat