We’re stepping into the Barrel Room.
Sit back, it’s going to be a long and patient ride.
Barrel ageing, an avenue of beer making that until now North Brewing Co had only dipped two tiny toes into. Two oak pins from Theakstons Brewery that we aged our collaboration with De Molen in to pour at the illustrious Borefts Beer Festival. The beer was an Imperial Mild composed of a recipe dating back to the late 1700’s. It was made 100% mild ale malt, 18g per litre of East Kent Goldings in the early boil and inverted sugars. We were just as excited as the festival goers to try our first barrel aged beer. North x De Molen XXK Mild – ‘from the wood’.
The results of the beer resting on oak unlocked an array of incredible new attributes. One takeaway was how much more mellow and rounded the beer had become. Before there was a real rich bitterness to the beer, this had almost entirely vanished, transforming into a smoother, sweet banana or vanilla note with a touch of fresh herby bitterness on the finish. Of course it also helped that beer was poured from a handpull, sparkler on, of course.
North Bar has had a lot of barrel aged beers pass through its taps and fridge shelves over the years, a lot we’ve taken the opportunity to try. It would be very indulgent to list them all so we’ll just talk about one in particular that stands out. Lervig (NO) and Hopping Frog’s (USA) Barrel Aged ‘Sippin Into Darkness’, an already impressive and decadent beer taken to new and dizzying heights from time spent in Bourbon barrels. With barrel ageing there comes this new dimension to a beer. The same beer is still very much alive, but a set of deep and characterful tones pierce through its profile. Some remain, some transform and new attributes arise. ‘Sippin Into Darkness’ with cacao nibs and vanilla worked into a velvety smooth imperial stout recipe and aged in bourbon barrels it was like drinking a chocolate martini. Luxurious and elegant, it really made you want to sit down, sip it slowly and get to know it.
As this is written, we’re travelling back to Leeds from Penryn after pouring at Verdant’s Little Summer Beer Bash. One of our neighbours was Estonia’s Pohjala, a brewery prolific in their ability to brew dark beers. Their beer ‘Bison in the Barrel Room’ was our beer of the festival. An Imperial Baltic Porter brewed with Bisongrass and aged in Apple Brandy barrels. It’s an incredible example of the ideas that can be achieved with creativity and imagination. Its complexity and balance was something to truly behold. Boozy, sweet – but just the right amount of sweetness, rich chocolate, espresso, with an underlying herbaceous tone that continues and builds through the whole drink.
Barrel ageing beers was high up on our priority list when Field Recordings was conceived. In Monument, our first barrel aged release, we’re learning a lot already. We’ve brewed the beer slightly sweeter so that it can deal with a little drying from its time in the barrel. One thing we’ve noticed in some barrel aged stouts is that real dry aspect. It’s almost the same quality as when high proof spirits have that feeling of alcohol evaporating from your tongue leaving your mouth feeling dry. In some barrel aged stouts we’ve noticed this quality can be a little overbearing and we want to avoid that. Too dry and all that booze stands up in front of the pallet and muffles every other flavour. Too sweet and well… you just have a beer that’s too sweet? – and we’re not into that.
Monument also sees us take our first turn at blending. We have a range of barrels and across them all, two different Imperial Stouts have been ageing in them all. Over a period time we’ve been tasting them, monitoring changes in the beers and eventually deciding that they’re ready to be moved. Monument is a blend of beer aged in Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Appleton Rum and Speyside Scotch barrels.
There’s still some of the base beer in those barrels, and there’s another stout made of a different recipe in those same types of barrel and in some other types of barrels too. A blend of all these different beers in all these different barrels could make for an Imperial Stout with a completely different set of attributes.
We can also start to think about what we do with a blend once it’s made it out of barrels. We could move a beer into a steel tank and let it sit on more ingredients. Coffee beans, coconut chips, cacao nibs, tea leaves, cherries, dates, pistachio, bison grass? We could then balance it out with more beer from another barrel.
We’re in a new realm of brewing and it’s incredibly exciting.
Another exciting aspect to our barrel ageing programme is to see what other styles of beer will make it into barrels. It was at Dark City 2018 where we tried a Barley Wine from Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co that had been aged in barrels that previously held a collaboration with Lervig. ‘Dark Forest’ as it was known was an Imperial Stout conditioned on cherries in Bourbon Barrels. The stout was emptied from the barrels and those barrels were immediately filled with Barley Wine. The result was this incredible balance of clean malt profile, not muffled or sticky, it had an underlying roastiness from its contact with the dark beer previouse, but countered with a sweet and aromatic sweet cherry flavour profile that rolled around your tongue. In 2019 North collaborated on a Barley Wine with Good Things Brewing (now Allkin). It was made up of heritage malts, Golden Promise, Chevallier, Red Crystal and Chit and has a generous helping of English Bullion hops. There are still kegs and cans out there and the time that beer has had in refrigeration has been so so kind to it. It’s clean, balanced, fruity like banana and vanilla, fragrant and a little hoppy. We’re toying with the idea of brewing something similar to that recipe and letting it rest in those Heaven Hill and Appleton Rum barrels, maybe even some Theakston Old Peculier barrels too?
Another source of inspiration is Brooklyn Breweries ‘Improved Old Fashioned’. A strong Rye Ale, aged in WhistlePig Rye Whiskey oak barrels with gentian root, bitter orange peel, lemon peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, bitter gentian root, cloves. It was a single release from Brooklyn and it was one of those beers that really exemplified what can be achieved with time, imagination and beer. We love Negroni. What if we took a strong ale and aged it in gin and vermouth barrels with bitter citrus, botanicals and herbs? It’s not just strong and boozy ales that are destined for time in barrels, light, pale and sour beer can be put into a range of barrels available to us. A Grisset infused with Elderflower could find its way to Chardonnay Barrels and sit on Gooseberries. We could even Barrel Age coffee beans, we could empty out the coffee beans and fill those barrels with a beer capturing all those aromas and flavours from the beans.
Our imagination is now wondering, but it’s needless to say, the possibilities are endless and we are endlessly excited about what we’re going to do with our barrels. We hope you enjoy Monument as much as we have enjoyed creating it.
Sit back, it’s going to be a long and patient ride.