Big Beer’s Bet on Bourbon Barrels
Formerly niche, whiskey-finished beers are now going big time.
The Budweiser name is one of the crown jewels of branding, known around the world. Likewise, Jim Beam is an iconic label, the world’s best-selling bourbon. But Bud and Beam are more than just brand names and have huge cultural significance.
So when you see both of these brands on a single label, you can be sure that what is inside, by merely existing, is big news. Meet Budweiser Reserve Copper Lager, a new beer brewed from 2-row barley and aged on actual Jim Beam White Label bourbon barrel staves.
However, this isn’t exactly a bottled beer and a shot. “There is not actual Jim Beam in the beer,” says Ricardo Marques, vice-president of marketing for Budweiser. “Rather the recipe was inspired by the flavors of the bourbon. The barrel staves are sterilized and added to the lager tank prior to filling with [the] beer.” (That’s a process the brewers are familiar with; it’s exactly how the famed “beechwood aging” of classic Budweiser is done.)
If this concoction takes off, it’s a huge boom for bourbon barrel-aged beers. These hugely flavorful brews, with boozy overtones of vanilla and spicy oak, are usually based on heavy-framed imperial stouts or tripels. For decades, they have been a favorite of the craft beer crowd, but have been somewhat intimidating for the regular beer drinkers who generally want…well…an easy drinking Bud.
The first known attempt at a bourbon barrel finished beer was made 26 years ago, and, to be honest, didn’t sell all that well. “The first few days it was on tap, no one drank it,” admits Greg Hall, who brewed that first batch of Bourbon County Stout at Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago. “They had no idea what it was!”
What’s fascinating is that the very first batch wouldn’t have happened without Jim Beam’s grandson and legendary Beam master distiller, Booker Noe. He hosted a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner in South Bend, Indiana, in 1992, and Hall was there. In the afterglow of the dinner, the idea of aging Hall’s beer in Noe’s barrels was born.
Noe sent six freshly-emptied barrels to Chicago, and Hall filled them with a big, rich imperial stout. As he said, it got off to a slow start, but once a few adventurous drinkers tried it, word spread quickly.
However, when Hall took the beer to the Great American Beer Festival, there wasn’t even an award category for him to enter it in. The judges punted, and awarded the beer one of the festival’s few honorable mentions, acknowledging a great but unclassifiable beer. There are now multiple medal categories for barrel-aged beers at the event and even an annual Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers in Chicago.
Bourbon County Stout (almost universally called simply BCS) has become a phenomenon. It was one of the reasons that the company was purchased a few years ago by Budweiser’s parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev. I visited the BCS warehouse in Chicago recently as a guest of the brand, and was left slack-jawed at the size of the place. The warehouse has room for up to 10,000 barrels, and held about 6,500 when I was there. The brand was gearing up for its annual one-day release of BCS, appropriately enough on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. For a beer geek, the BCS release is every bit as frenzied and grabby as a midnight holiday doorbuster sale (especially for the Chicago-only release of the limited Proprietor’s bottling, which changes every year).
Every drop of BCS (the classic stout, as well as variants like barleywine and this year’s wheatwine, which, wow, I’m going to be looking hard for) is brewed at Goose Island’s smaller Fulton Street Taproom facility and then is tankered to the warehouse, where it is poured into freshly-emptied bourbon barrels. These are now largely from Heaven Hill, mostly former Evan Williams and Elijah Craig barrels, but about 25-percent are sourced through brokers.
The beers are either simply aged in the barrels (for a minimum of eight months; the average is eleven), or infused with flavors. The flavors are natural—coffee beans (from Intelligentsia roasters, literally next door to the Fulton Street facility), vanilla beans, cocoa nibs, fruit puree—and spun directly into the beer in small vessels referred to affectionately as Dorothy tanks, a hat tip to the tornado barrels in the 1996 movie Twister.
BCS is entering the mainstream through sheer force of will, but, like the Budweiser Copper Reserve, other beers are joining up with established bourbon brands to attract the wider beer and bourbon markets and not just craft beer nerds.
One of the first was Anderson Valley, a pioneering brewery from northern California. They teamed up with Wild Turkey and I was lucky enough to be at the launch of Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout back in 2012. I was handed my first glass by Wild Turkey’s legendary distiller Jimmy Russell.
This product was different from BCS in a number of ways. For one, it was made with Anderson Valley’s oatmeal stout at a significantly lower alcohol level. This presaged the current crop of bourbon barrel beers, which are more drinkable that the original behemoths.
Still, as Anderson Valley head brewer Fal Allen (a craft brewing icon in his own right) noted, these beers often pick up some power from the still-wet barrels. “It starts out about 5.8-percent ABV (alcohol by volume). We put it in Wild Turkey barrels for about three months, and it comes up a little, to about 6.9-percent.” (Marques noted that the Budweiser Reserve Copper Lager picks up no additional alcohol from the wood; presumably because of the sterilization process.)
New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, has also teamed up with Beam bourbon brand Knob Creek to make Oakspire Bourbon Barrel Ale using a new process altogether. Oakspire is produced with a combination of intricately-cut spirals of oak soaked in Knob Creek Bourbon and Knob Creek barrel char. The barrel char—the charred inner layer, rich in caramelized wood sugars and natural vanillin—is “harvested” at the distillery from freshly-dumped barrels. A blend of the char and the soaked oak spirals is added to what is essentially a steel tea bag, fitted with openings to allow an exchange of liquid, which is put in the tank with the maturing beer, a high-rye 9-percent bruiser of an ale.
If you’re a long-time craft beer drinker, or a bourbon-barrel beer aficionado, this will be old hat to you. But if you’re new to the idea, the lure of two familiar names—Wild Turkey, Budweiser, Jim Beam, Anderson Valley, Elijah Craig, New Belgium, Knob Creek—might be enough to tempt you to sample one of these brews. And if you do, you’ll discover a beautiful blend of two great flavors.