Barrel-aged Memphis Beer Beat—
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many barrel-aged beers available in Memphis, but there are a few to be found...and they're absolutely worth trying. Last week I picked up a bottle of Hitachino Nest XH (a Belgian-style strong dark ale aged in sake barrels) by the Kiuchi Brewery of Naka, Japan as well as a bottle of Ola Dubh Special Reserve 16 (an old ale aged in 16 year old single malt scotch whiskey barrels) from the Scottish Harviestoun Brewery.
Over the past decade or so, the conditioning of beer in barrels recycled from distilleries has become a significant trend among craft breweries...and beer geeks can’t seem to get enough of these boozed-up gems. Your typical candidate for barrel-aging is found in the strong, age-able beer (imperial stouts, barleywines, old ales, wild ales, Belgian strong ales, etc.). While oak barrels were once the normal container used for aging and shipping beer, nowadays craft brewers use them to impart certain flavors and depth to their beer. For a short history on barrel-aged beers, check out this article by beer blogger, Michael Tonsmeire.
So let’s kick things of with the Hitachino Nest XH (Extra High). At 8% ABV and 44 IBUs, XH is brewed with Marris Otter, Munich, Crystal, and Chocolate malts and Chinook, Styrian Golding hops, and matured in Shochu (distilled sake) for about 3 months.
I had been reading up on XH, so I should have been prepared for the absurdly over-carbonation that’s apparently common with this beer. Rich, off white foam poured from the bottle as soon as the cap was removed, and I probably lost about a 1/5th of the beer to the table and floor. The aroma was just about as eager to jump out of the bottle as the beer itself, and man...it smells fantastic. Pouring was a long and tedious prospect, and even with a slow and gentle poor, the head proved unbelievably aggressive.
Back to the aroma, there’s a lot of initial candi sugar, raisiny, bubble gum-esque smells packed into XH, all of which are fairly typical of the Belgian strong dark ale style. But that’s quickly replaced with notes of fresh woodiness, vanilla, and sake. Complex and muddled, it’s a bit difficult to break this smell down.
Taste-wise, the first flavors are of sweet dark fruits (plum, blood orange, orange rinds) and caramel, and like the aroma, vanilla oakiness, smoke, and tart sake emerge and linger on the tongue. It’s just as difficult to pin down as the aroma.
This is by far the weirdest/ most interesting beer I’ve had the pleasure to try. Within about 15 minutes of pouring, XH changed radically. Opening up as it warms, it abandons its sweetness for a barnyard funkiness that’s not unlike the beers of the Flanders region of Belgium. Is this what love feels like? I had to stop myself from heading back to the liquor store to round up a case of this stuff, but at $5/bottle, one must drink conservatively.
I suppose now’s the time to talk about pricing, as the next beer was about $15 for a 12 oz. bottle. Steep? Yeah, probably. I’ve walked past Ola Dubh on the shelves for years, tempted, but inevitably scared away by the price tag. But I’ve come to see it like this: a world class bottle of wine will run you anywhere between $50-1000, and yet a world-class beer comparably decadent and complex (which I’d argue describes these beers) is rarely more than $20. And when the price of spent barrels and the cost of storing these beers for months or years in the brewery are taken into account, the price seems a bit more reasonable.
With that out of the way, let’s move on Ola Dubh (meaning black oil). An old ale at 8% ABV aged in Highland Park’s 16 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky, not to mention the price tag, all served to boost my expectations to unknowable heights...and I’m delighted to say that those expectations were met spectacularly.
The bottle, adorned with a little tag singing the praises of the Highland Park distillery by listing their numerous accolades, contains a 2009 vintage that pours pitch black with very little head that quickly subsides to lace.
Smells of rock salt, caramel, bitter dark chocolate and peaty earthiness dominate with an underlying layer of smooth oak and scotch. There’s some slight heat from the alcohol, but one needs to search to find it.
The flavor is on par with the aroma in terms of intensity and brilliance. Deep mocha, caramel, vanilla, woodiness, pipe tobacco, and scotch abound with nearly no trace of alcohol heat...I’m imagining myself walking into a small cabin warmed by a wood stove from an all-consuming blizzard and cracking open a bottle of this warming as hell brew. It's simply comforting and absolutely fantastic, and I’d say this trumps the XH in every way except in weirdness.
Harviestoun brews several versions of this beer: the 12 year, 16, 30, and 40, though I’ve yet to see either the 30 or 40 in Memphis. Those interested in trying this beer but hesitant to drop $15 might find some comfort in the Special Reserve 12, which is a bit cheaper than its older brother and should be just as delicious.
Alright, well I’m going to wrap this thing up, but before I do, I’d like to say that Ghost River began distribution of their bottled Golden Ale on November 18th, and have since shipped 1,000 cases to Southwestern Distributing with an additional 500 cases today. Six packs can be found at Kroger stores throughout Memphis as well as Raffe’s Beer Garden, Whole Foods, the Fresh Market, Walnut Grove Market, Miss Corelia’s, and Ike’s on Union, among others, according to Southwestern Sales Manager, Rocky Martini.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now! Cheers!