With the growth and maturation of Minnesota’s beer portfolio, it is no surprise that the beers themselves are also becoming more refined. Newer breweries like Indeed and Dangerous Man are placing more emphasis on barrel-aged beers, such as Russian imperial stouts and sours. Bottles of Surly Darkness were aged in barrels this fall for the first time since the beer’s 2007 debut.
One brewery that is no novice when it comes to aging beer in wood is Town Hall. Brewmaster Mike Hoops has been experimenting with the technique since 2001, and patrons have come to look forward to Town Hall’s traditional winter Barrel Week, which began in 2009.
Barrel aging isn’t new. In fact, it’s ancient. Only since Prohibition has beer routinely been stored in stainless steel. Before that era, wooden containers were the most practical and feasible way to store beer and wine, and the libations were usually served right from the vessel.
Modern day brewers use wood for a multitude of reasons, the primary one being to add complexity and depth of flavor. Hoops says that he thinks of the wood as an additional ingredient in the recipe. “Sometimes it is subtle,” he says. “Sometimes … not.”
The barrelled beers at Town Hall range from subtle to not: echoing, harmonizing, or sometimes starkly contrasting with either the wood-derived flavors or notes from the vessel’s previous contents. “Consumers expect certain beers,” notes Hoops. He refers not only to classic fan favorites like Czar Jack imperial stout, first made in 2001, but also to certain styles. Bold and high-alcohol styles work best in barrels, as can be seen in the nine selections available starting today at Town Hall Lanes and Town Hall Tap.
To experience robust barrel character, try Twisted Trace, a 10.4 percent alcohol by volume barleywine aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Despite the reputation of barleywines and bourbon-barrel-aged beers for being hot and bright with alcohol, the aging process in this case increases the harmony and balance in the glass. The time spent in the barrels is like time in a slow-cooker — all the flavors are well incorporated, with notes of caramel singing through perfectly.
For a far more subtle sip, go with the Manhattan Reserve, a Belgian-style grand cru that incorporates tart cherries and is aged in Woodford Reserve barrels, hence the classic cocktail name. The tart cherry meets the whiskey without either element being overpowered.
Another approachable and widely-appealing choice is the Duke of Wallonia. A treat for drinkers who prefer wine or cocktails, this crossover beer is aged in red-wine barrels. The traces of wine stand up to the tremendous coriander and orange notes of the imperial-Belgian-style wit, while darkening and anchoring the entire profile.
The wood itself breathes as climate, humidity, and components in the liquid act on it. Tannins from the wood enter the beer and dramatically change its character. Barrel-aged beer at Town Hall is kept at cellar temperature in a moist environment, ideal for art and science to reveal themselves.
Enjoy these unique creations until the supply runs out; each one is impossible to reproduce.