The beer called Consecration immediately hits the dark cherry fruit notes, fast and hard. Next comes the tart sledgehammer puckering all in its path, which gives way to the taste of oak-covered-in-crumbling-leather — a fun, somewhat funky "dried-out" finish on the tongue. (And if that's not enough, enjoy the 10 percent alcohol by volume.)
The masterpiece is one of a line of beers from California's Russian River Brewing Co., famed for its early use of barrel-aging. Russian River takes old wine barrels — in the case of Consecration, American oak barrels that once held cabernet sauvignon — and adds wild yeast strains and bacteria that do pleasantly upsetting things to the beer's taste.
Bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are natural "beer spoilers" that, when carefully used, make "sours." This category of beer was virtually nonexistent domestically a decade ago, according to the Los Angeles Times. But it's part of a barrel-aging trend that's picking up speed as it returns us to a time when most fermented beverages gained complexity from being stored in wood.
John Schneider, Bristol Brewing Co.'s head brewer, is a local brewer making sweet music from sour notes.
"I love it," he says. "It's a lot of extra work on the side, but the product that comes out makes it well worth the time and the labor, if you like that style. [The bacteria] produce lactic acid and acetic acid, and that's the tartness, the sourness, you taste when you're drinking a sour beer."
The microorganisms, however, don't explain the leathery — or "farmhouse," "horse blanket" or "wet dog in a phone booth" — taste. That honor goes to Brettanomyces. "Brett" is a yeast that acts like typical brewer's yeast, except it keeps fermenting well past the average, eating even the sugars found in the barrel, leaving more of a dryness in its wake.
"We have to be really careful," Schneider says. "The stuff that's in those barrels that we know are beer spoilers, we can't risk getting any of that inside the brewery itself. Our barrels stay inside the warehouse — they don't come in where the tanks are. That stuff could totally shut us down if we had it in here running wild with our yeast, or in one of these tanks."
The risk of a single yeast strain reworking the flavor of all a brewery's creations is on the mind of any brewer who goes "brett." But few are as knowledgeable as Trinity Brewing Co. co-founder and former Bristol head brewer Jason Yester, whom Schneider credits with being one of the first anywhere to barrel-up, back around the turn of the millennium.
"There were really only five people at the time that started doing this, because it's extremely risky," Yester acknowledges. "You can get contamination in your brewery fairly easy if you're not careful."
Despite the risk, Yester says he loves the barrel-aging process, and not just because of the end product.
"Just everything, man — the romance behind it. It's basically like making a wine with beer ingredients, and I happen to like beer more than wine. So you get an extremely complex beer."
Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, has seen complexity embraced by the beer community. Herz says the BA, which administers the Great American Beer Festival, expanded the "Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer " category, adding a "strong stout" subcategory this year to the existing "strong beer" and "sour beer" subcategories.
Says Yester: "I probably saw 40 sours at the Great American Beer Fest, which really caught me off guard."
Sours aren't the only malt vintage benefitting from barrels, however. Stouts, India pale ales and Belgian-style saisons all gain from an oaken tumble, and the benefits run deeper than just the wood's character infusing the beer.
"Some breweries are using fresh barrels, but the norm for barrel-aged programs from breweries, is barrels that have already had some form of beverage," says Herz. "Either wine, or bourbon, or even rum or other types of spirits and the like."
And though science plays a part, at a certain point you've just got to throw mash at the wall and see what sticks, says Schneider.
"After the beer's fermented, we'll fill up the barrel with it," he says. "And whether we'll get the whiskey flavor, or if we add wild yeast to it, we just basically throw it up and let it sit until it tastes like it's good to serve."
The brewer says it's that "Why not?" style that's brought breweries full circle back to barrel-aging.
"People are just kinda going wild, really breaking out of the mold of style guidelines and really doing what they wanna do," Schneider says. "A lot of the brewers are starting to go back more to brewing artistically or more from their hearts, [rather] than just following the guidelines in place for certain styles."