A Victory for Oak
Though our true passion lies with wine, we here at PAVC also have a deep appreciation for good beer. We certainly should; we’re living in an era of beer-brewing that’s probably the greatest and most innovative the craft has ever seen, and our region can easily claim to be among the best in the world.
I considered attempting convince those of you that love wine but haven’t yet discovered the pleasures of real beer, but that’s probably best saved for another time. Instead, I’ll just say this: there’s a lot more out there than mass-produced lagers, so if you’ve turned your nose at all brews based on Bud or Miller Lite, you should take heed. In fact, there’s a new trend in the beer world that should intrigue both beer and wine lovers alike: aging beers in wine barrels to add flavor and complexity.
The concept is not actually new; beers such as Lambic have been aged in oak barrels for, well, ever. In recent years, however, the practice has become more prevalent among top American craft brewers looking to diversify their product offerings, and Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, perhaps PA’s finest brewer, has recently joined the game with a pair of barrel-aged brews. In late 2012, they released Red Thunder, a version of Baltic Thunder porter that was aged in once-used Cabernet barrels from California’s Wente Vineyards, and on March 2, 2013, they’ll debut White Monkey, a twist on Golden Monkey tripel that’s been aged in Wente Chardonnay barrels. (Victory also makes several beers that have been aged in bourbon barrels.)
I recently chatted with Karen Noonan, Victory’s Communication Manager, about the program. In regards to which beers to age, she told me that the key is finding the right flavor profiles that would be accentuated by oak. “We likely wouldn’t barrel-age our lager because the flavor is so gentle, so it wouldn’t be able to stand up to the abrasive flavors that are added by barreling. On the other hand, our Storm King Stout is a strong, dense beer on its own, so barrel-aging it in bourbon barrels made sense.”
“When we thought of barrel-aging Baltic Thunder, on the other hand, it made perfect sense to us to do so in a red wine barrel. Both are dark, rich and fruity. Conversely, Chardonnay is more delicate in flavor, so we chose Golden Monkey, a beer with a lighter body that was more delicate in malt quality,” said Noonan.
I’ve been a big fan of Baltic Thunder for a while now. It’s rich, hearty and smooth, with deep chocolate flavor and hints of raisins and toffee. Though it is a relatively high 8.5% ABV, it is smooth and easy to drink. As such, I was very excited to try the Cabernet barrel-aged version. Having scored a bottle at a local Wegman’s (the limited edition bottles do tend to sell out rather quickly), I opened it with high anticipation.
Just like wine aged in oak, the barrel’s impact on the beer is immediately evident. Vanilla and warm spice take prominent roles in both the nose and palate, the mouthfeel is creamier, and there’s a noticeable tannic bite on the finish.
Though Red Thunder is more alluring at first, I actually find the cleaner flavor of the Baltic Thunder to be more satisfying. Of course, I tend to prefer wines with less of an oak influence as well, so that’s not much of a surprise. (For the record, my drinking partner preferred Red Thunder for its refined texture.)
It’s also worth noting that this is Victory’s first experiment with wine barrels, so the program will likely continue to evolve and improve. “Most of the time, we can make assumptions about what the end result will taste like, but nothing is guaranteed,” said Noonan. “Complex interactions occur between the flavors in the beer and the flavor elements in the wood.”
Though this batch of Red Thunder is likely long gone from stores, the first White Monkey will be released on March 2, 2013 and should be available across the state. (Limited edition bottling will yield approximately 2,800 cases of 750ml bottles.) For those in the Philly area, Victory’s Downingtown brewpub will be hosting “In Like a Monkey,” a celebration that’ll include a special beer breakfast featuring dishes paired to both Golden and White Monkey. Restaurant and retail operations will open at 9am for case and bottle purchases.