Before the late 1990s, the lives of barrels mostly started and ended with their relationship to wine or spirits. The notion of aging a beer in used barrels was still a relatively novel concept. What you may not know is that one of your favorite Minneapolis brewpubs was one of the earliest pioneers in barrel-aging beer.
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“It wasn’t a cool thing,” recollects Brewmaster Mike Hoops at a media preview of Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery’s annual Barrel-Aged Week, pondering where they even got the idea to barrel-age a beer. Before oak-aging had gone mainstream in craft beer, Scott Krebsbach (now General Manager of Town Hall), was one of their brewers. Krebsbach returned from a national beer convention in 1999, having heard a talk on the concept of barrel-aging beer. According to Hoops, “that’s kind of how it all started.”
“The first barrel I bought I just called up the Jack Daniels General Store in Tennessee and said, ‘Is it possible to get a barrel?’, and they’re like, ‘Oh, sure,'” says Hoops, smiling at the relative simplicity of that first transaction. That first barrel procurement cost about “forty five bucks for the barrel, and $75 for shipping,” a fraction of the cost of high-quality oak in today’s barrel-thirsty market.
With barrel in hand, Hoops and crew knew they would need a big beer to hold up to the intense flavors of whiskey, oak, and char that were sure to be held in the staves of their new toy. They brewed a Russian Imperial Stout and “stuck it in the corner.”
“We tasted it throughout the year,” said Hoops. “As time passed we got to a point where we were like ‘Oh, that’s pretty not bad, maybe we should release that beer.'” Once they were able to sort through some logistical challenges, like physically moving the beer from the barrel, the guys had a product they were relatively proud of.
“That was the first Czar Jack. A buncha punks carbonated that thing up, sent it off to the GABF [Great American Beer Fest] and it got a gold medal,” boasted Hoops.
That was 2001, and Czar Jack won gold in the “Experimental Beer” category. The following year, the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer category was added and has since been subdivided into several, more specific categories.
Hoops and company haven’t looked back. Town Hall has now won 15 total of medals at GABF since they opened in 1997. Once a year, they break into their award-winning cellar for a week of special releases.
All hail, Barrel-Aged Week.
From this Monday, February 20th, through Saturday, February 25th (with a growler pre-sale on Feb. 19), Town Hall will be unleashing a slew of special releases including eight beers from its Whiskey Barrel-Aged series, like its flagship Czar Jack Barrel-Aged Russian Style Imperial Stout, which is making a return this year after a 2016 absence.
Perhaps the most exclusive offering will be a Single Barrel Reserve of Foolish Angel—a bourbon barrel-aged Belgian-style Quadrupel that Hoops liked so much he decided to keep it separate from the rest of the Foolish Angel aged in other barrels and release it on its own.
In addition to all the whiskey love, Town Hall has also expanded its Wine Barrel-Aged series, and will feature four offerings this year including Eye Wine Red and the new Eye Wine White, two variations of the same strong honey ale—aged in red and white wine barrels. The Eye Wine vertical offers an interesting showcase of the not-so-subtle flavor differences imparted by the barrels.
One of the benefits of being a brewpub, according to Hoops, is the attention they can pay to the interplay between food and beer. They are hosting a very special Barrel Dinner on Tuesday, February 21st, that will feature some artfully curated pairings that Hoops and chef Matt Lepisto have been working on.
“We collaborated, did some tasting, and found out what worked with what particular beer,” said Lepisto, noting that pairing foods with a unique set of beers like these presents some challenges. “From my point of view, the barrel-aged beers are kind of different. When you combine a bourbon and a beer you get very different flavor profiles.”
Photos by Kevin Kramer, The Growler
As we nibbled Lepisto’s intelligently curated pairings and sipped through the lineup of impending releases in the basement brewhouse of Town Hall, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the wealth of expertise and knowledge that Hoops and company have gleaned in a couple short decades in the beer industry. Their knowledge on the subject of beer and flavor, and the brewery’s attention to detail and quality, stand as a shining example of how to do things right in the business of beer.
The full Barrel Aged Week release schedule can be found here. Stop by Town Hall next week and raise a glass to the craft of beer.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Czar Jack won the first GABF medal for a barrel-aged beer in 2001. In fact, Flossmoor Station Brewing won a gold in 1998 for its barrel-aged Imperial Eclipse Stout.