Beerism Wines! An Investigation Into Chardonnay Barrel Aged Beer

Beer and wine are two very different products, with different ingredients, different histories, and different consumers. However, as the beer world expands and starts incorporating new flavours and ingredients from other sources, these two distinct products can (at times) get a little closer.  For some time now, traditional Lambic sours have been aged in old port, sherry, or wine oak barrels. They are spontaneously fermented and then left to their own devices. This process allows them to take on those bacterial and wild yeast flavours that impart deliciously funky and sour properties. However, more and more, beer styles that were never traditionally barrel aged are now being experimented with, and thrown into wine barrels as well. These are the types of beers that we are going to talk about today. Some brewers have even been literally adding grape must into the beer during the brewing process (although we will not be having any of those beers today).

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For the purposes of this article, I found three beers from three different breweries, each a different style, but each sharing one important thing: they were all specifically aged in oak barrels previously containing Chardonnay wine. Chardonnay grapes are green, and are more or less exclusively used for making white wine. The grape itself is relatively neutral, and more often characterized by the terroir (growing location) it comes from, or the oak barrels it is aged in rather than its own particularities. The wine that this grape produces can differ quite a lot depending on the region in which it’s made. Generally speaking, its traditional (French) producers don’t oak age their Chardonnay, so they taste fresh, light and crisp. The new world Chardonnays are generally oaked, and carry a fuller body with notes of vanilla and ripe fruit. For the three barrel aged beers we’re tasting today, I’m not certain which wines were housed by these particular oak casks; however, I can only presume it is Ontario, or elsewhere in North America given the logistics and general practices.

As I was mentioning above, the following beers are all different styles: I have a Berliner Weiss, a Belgian Tripel, and a Wheat Wine. Traditionally these beer styles are not barrel aged, and their flavour profiles differ quite a lot. Because of these factors, examining how the oak aging and the wine remnants affect each beer will be that much more interesting. Let’s get started.

Bellwoods Brewery – Weft & Warp

IMG_20140520_022937Bellwoods Brewery does small batch brewing, which allows them to pump out new and innovative beers constantly. I wrote an article about them a little while back, check it out here. Weft & Warp is a Berliner Weiss, which is a sour wheat beer originating (you guessed it) from Berlin, Germany. They are brewed with a bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is what gives them their potently sour flavor. They are getting more popular in the new world with more and more craft breweries pumping them out each year.

It pours out a foggy yellow/orange color, with a small but fluffy white head. At first sniff, I get zesty and earthy yeast esters, with some metallic undertones, followed by white grapes, and a lot of sour tartness. It’s a smell that makes your mouth water in anticipation of the sour bomb to come. There is some oaky vanilla coming through, but mostly this is super fruity. I can’t exactly put my finger on the fruit, but I’m getting something like underripe kiwi?

Let’s taste it! Well, it is certainly sour. There are loads of underripe fruits – strawberries and white grapes in particular, with some melon in the finish. The barrel aging comes out less on the taste as compared to the nose, but it is still there and lends vanilla and woodiness to the whole thing. The mouth feel is slick and soft, which nurses the sourness into a flavour explosion worthy of this hot summer evening. It’s also dry as fuck, if you were wondering. Imagine squeezing the tart and sour juices from some fresh green grapes – this is essentially what this beer is like to me. It was a great idea aging this one in white wine casks as this style has such a similar flavour profile to dry Chardonnay; at times it’s hard to tell where the beer stops and the wine begins (if at all).

Microbrasserie du Lac Saint-Jean – Tante Tricotante (Chardonnay Barrel Aged)

IMG_20140519_100537Pretty much everything I’ve had from Microbrasserie du Lac St-Jean has been stellar. Their beers are well executed, and just plain tasty. They are located in Saint-Gédéon, Quebec (5hrs north of Montreal), and for a while it wasn’t always easy finding their beers around here. However, I believe they have increased production, because we are seeing regular offerings now. Tante Tricotante Chardonnay is a version of their regular Belgian Trappiste style Tripel, but aged in Chardonnay casks. I’ve heard fantastic things about this beer, so I’m excited to see the results.

It pours out a slightly foggy golden color with hints of orange. On the aroma there is funky yeast off the bat, with a sour and tart backdrop. I’m also getting some dust and general mustiness. The wine properties are pretty apparent here with lots of vinous characteristics, including green grapes, pears, zesty citrus, oak and some strawberries.

Now onto to tasting. Wow, this has some great fruity complexities up front with hints of sweetness, followed by tart and somewhat sour flavours as well. The finish is very bitter, mixed in with all kinds of oak and wood components, especially rubber. It doesn’t remotely drink like a 10% beer, and the only inclination of its booze is in the finish, which has a warming effect, carrying some minimal ethanol pungency. There are certainly some white wine-like elements here, offering tart green grapes, pears, some minimal citrus fruit, and a dry finish. There are some lingering Belgian yeast flavors, but this beer has clearly been altered from the original substantially. It really has this unique finish that is bitter, tart, and boozy all the same time, and very dry.

This one is well worth the steep price and I’m quite excited to see how my other bottle does over time. It is delicate and forceful at the same time. There is just so much going on here.

Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company – Ashnan Wheat Wine

IMG_20140529_105136If you are not familiar with Beau’s, I’ve written several articles about their offerings. However, amongst them, this post gives you a bit of background on why I enjoy their beers so much. Ashnan is one of four special edition barrel aged beers recently released. They classify this particular beer as a Wheat Wine, which in relation to this article can be a bit confusing. The “wine” portion of the title actually has nothing to do with wine whatsoever; instead, it basically means that this is a very strong beer made with an abundance of wheat (similar to a barleywine, which again does not have any relation to wine). That being said, like all the beers in this article, this one was also aged in Chardonnay oak barrels and should likely take on vinous characteristics.

It pours out a sexy and slightly foggy, copper orange colour, with a tight one finger head. Off the bat, on the nose I get some zesty yeast esters, and a lot of barrel oak funk. It’s extremely vinous, with loads of white grapes. There are lots of spices as well, cinnamon in particular. It’s woody, with some earthy hops lingering on a pretty sweet malty backbone. There is some honey on the nose as well, as if it’s got a bit of age on it.

On the taste front, my first impression is sweet and spicy with a tangy zip. There are lots of green grapes and some tannins from the wood. The Chardonnay really comes through on this one, more than the other two examples, and it’s the finish that really solidifies the wine-like properties, ending with a tart & boozy grape fruitiness that lingers alongside the hefty bitterness. It also carries some barleywine sweet malty characteristics, mixed with the zesty and slightly tart wine barrel aging components you get in some some higher ABV sour blends. It is really multilayered, full of bold complexities that change as your palate adjusts and as it warms.The body is robust, and the head stays throughout the whole drinking experience, providing a frothy little foam top coating. A good and very interesting offering, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Well, this was certainly an interesting comparison. Each beer carried elements of wine and the barrel, however each in their own distinct way. Bellwood’s Berliner was by far the most refreshing and tart, and was “white wine-like” in its thirst-quenching attributes, while Lac St-Jean’s Tripel was extremely heavy on the oak and barrel funk spectrum, and Beau’s Wheat Wine was something new and interesting altogether, combining a rich malty base with lots of green grape zestiness. I very much liked all three of these, and loved the experiment. I now feel like I have a better understanding of barrel aging, and more specifically, Chardonnay wine.

An article by Noah Forrest