Recently in Schlafly Category

Wonky barrel-aged blogging continues, and today's nerdery centers around the concept of bourbon barrel aging. It seems that every brewery has a barrel-aged program of sorts, and the most commonly used barrels appear to be bourbon barrels. Why is that?

If you've ever done any reading about the history of brewing*, you'll notice that many of the distinctive characteristics of beer are not solely the result of genius brewers. Indeed, it seems like the history of every style of beer comes attached with a million caveats about how brewers had to account for new government regulations, laws, and taxes. And bourbon barrels are no exception.

As it turns out, the legal definition of bourbon states that it must be aged "in charred new oak containers" (amongst other requirements). The operative word there is "new". This means that bourbon producers can only use their expensive barrels once before having to discard them. As such, a secondary market for used bourbon barrels is thriving due to their wide availability and flavor contributions.

While it has been well established that using new oak barrels is a best practice, I found it odd that such a thing would be codified in law, so I dug deeper and it turns out that this is all an artifact of prohibition and the great depression. As the U.S. was emerging from the long national nightmare of prohibition, the government did its best to ruin things through excessive regulation (stupid three-tiered system!). Enter Wilbur Mills**, a representative of the great state of Arkansas, who lent his support to the bill defining bourbon, but only if he could add a requirement for new oak barrels as a benefit for Arkansas' lumber industry. It was a win win. Arkansas lumber magnates were delighted at the increase in business (don't forget that this is all happening during the depression), and the Kentucky Bourbon barons also loved the law because it legally protected their preferred spirit.

In essence, they did the right thing for the wrong reasons, and us beer dorks are still reaping the benefits to this day. Speaking of which:

Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout 2008

Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout 2008 - Pours a very dark brown color with very nice amber highlights (not as dark as I was expecting) and no real head to speak of... Smell is filled with bourbon, caramel, chocolate, oak and vanilla, maybe a tiny bit of dark fruit too. Taste is very sweet, tons of that rich caramel flavor, dark malts, and a nice, boozy bourbon punch in the middle. There's very little stout-like roastiness here, though some of it does peek out in the finish. Very complex stuff, and it continues to evolve as it warms up, with the various flavor components jockying for position... without ever seeming to overwhelm the palate. Mouthfeel is nearly perfect. Well balanced carbonation, very smooth, full bodied, rich, and chewy. It's not something you gulp down or anything, but it's well balanced and goes down dangerously easy. Overall, this is a wonderful beer. I suspect there are some who would want more typical stoutlike flavors of roast and coffee, but those are not my sweet spots - this beer hits my palate very well. A

Beer Nerd Details: 10.5% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 4/12/12. 2008 vintage.

Between this beer and their oak aged barleywine, I'd say Schlafly has made quite a nice impression. I'd love to try a newer vintage of their barleywine, and they seem to have quite a selection of good beer available. But tomorrow, we're going to look at yet another bourbon barrel aged white whale beer. Stay tuned. Same bat time, same bat place.

* Or, I suppose, alcohol in general, as you're about to find out when it comes to bourbon. And I suppose it's not limited to alcohol either - ever wonder why the US government defines a tomato as a vegetable (and not a fruit)?

** Incidentally, Mills is apparently more famous for a whiskey-soaked and scandalous liaison with a stripper named Fanne Foxe, aka "The Argentine Firecracker". Heh.

For the most part, I drink all sorts of different beer styles at all different times of the year. But there is a certain seasonality that also comes into play too. Darker, stronger beers in winter, lighter, crisper, more refreshing beers for summer. Fall and Spring are a little more odd though. Fall has a big seasonal component with harvest ales and standard pumpkin and Oktoberfest beers, but Spring seems more open. For whatever reason, I tend to think of Spring (maybe late-winter) as Barleywine time. I have no idea why, it just feels... right.

But yeah, who am I kidding? Barleywines are always good!

I've heard a lot about Schlafly brewing (from St Louis, MO), but this is actually my first beer from them. Despite the 2008 vintage, I had only purchased this recently, so I was really curious to see if it held up (this may be the oldest beer I've ever had)... Then again, I would have also liked to compare it to a fresher variety.

Also, I didn't realize when I bought this that it didn't have any bourbon at all. I just saw oak aged and assumed bourbon was involved... until I cracked the bottle open and tasted it. I was looking for that bourbon flavor, but I couldn't find it. Then I looked at the description on the box a little closer and realized my mistake. Interestingly, reviewers on Beer Advocate frequently mention bourbon. Perhaps something resembles that in fresher vintages, but I didn't get anything like that here. Fortunately, the beer has a ton of flavor already, and that oak does add its own complexity, all by itself:

Schlafly Oak Aged Barlywine Style Ale

Schlafly Reserve Barleywine Style Ale 2008 - Pours a very nice, thick, dark copper color with minimal head. Smells strongly of caramel and vanilla, maybe a little oak notes too. Some fruity hops are present too, but they're subtle. As it warms, that fruitiness intensifies, throwing out raisiny notes. The taste prominently features that strong caramel malt flavor along with some fruitiness and vanilla/oak notes, especially in the finish. The age has definitely contributed to a certain complexity of flavor here, and as it warms, the fruity raisin flavors become even more prominent. Unfortunately, I don't know how well that age has treated the mouthfeel, which I find to be just a bit undercarbonated. This isn't really a flaw and it's still got enough carbonation to make this an excellent beer, but I find myself wishing for just a hint more carbonation. Again, I suspect this is more due to the age of the beer than anything else, and I do wonder what a 2010 or 2011 vintage would be like right now. Then again, this seems like less of an issue as the beer warms up a bit. Overall, this is still a wonderful beer, and I'm really glad I got to try some, even of this older vintage. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 10.2% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 3/29/12.

A very nice first impression for Schlafly, and I've got a bottle of 2008 Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout burning a whole in my fridge right now (perhaps I may open it later tonight!)

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

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