An article by Noah Forrest
Aging beer in wine barrels is nothing new; Belgian lambic producers have been doing it for ages. However, with the rising cost of bourbon barrels and the surge in tart and funky beers, there are a lot more examples hitting the shelves these days. Moreover, the beer scene is exploding, encouraging more experimentation and thinking outside the box.
The popularization of brewing with wine barrels excites me to no end. As I said above, it is integral in lambic production, and there are few beer styles that interest me more than lambic. That being said, my focus for this article will be on recent innovations in wine-barrel brewing. Brewers are harnessing the flavour profiles emitted from these oaked vessels in ways that haven’t really been done before (or at least not traditionally). This last year alone, Quebec has been pumping out all kinds of sexy wine-inspired wonderfulness. Almost every brewery that dabbles in barrel aging has created a beer at some point recently that has previously occupied a wine barrel. And personally, I love it.
Whether they are saisons, lambics, dark Belgian ales, IPA’s, or even stouts, beers aged in wine barrels carry a certain dry tannic property alongside additional fruity complexities that simply arouse me in ways I’d rather not talk about publicly (presuming it’s done well of course). So keep ’em coming! I’ll try them all.
Let’s get a bit more granular and talk about a couple of specific beers. I’m very excited to review the two sexy specimens from Microbrasserie Le Castor pictured above: Sanctuaire and Sanctuaire Brett. I’m enthusiastic because they are likely delicious, but I’m also extra excited because I will learn a little something by comparing them. Both of these beers have the same base (Belgian Trappist-styled Tripel), they were aged in the same wine barrels, and both were fermented with the same primary yeast strain. However, the Santuaire Brett edition went through a secondary fermentation process with a wild yeast strain called brettanomyces. This more volatile and aggressive wild yeast will attenuate the beer further, drying it that much more, while also imparting a whole spectrum of new and exciting flavours, like dank musty basement, barnyard and fruity complexities that the non-bretted version will not. It’s amazing how one component can alter the beer in such a grandiose fashion. Now, not having tasted these beers yet, I’m speculating. So let’s change that.
Sanctuaire hit shelves back in 2014 and has been aging gracefully ever since (or at least I hope). As I was mentioning above, it is a Belgian Tripel, but aged in a mix of red wine barrels, including Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
It pours out a crystal clear copper-orange colour with a modest head that sticks around for pretty much the entire drinking session. Given that this has a year on it, I’m getting lots of honey notes on the nose, mixed with hay, wheat, Belgian yeast phenolics and some subtle wine remnants. There are woody oak aromas as well, alongside sweet fruity essences of apples and pears.
The flavours match the nose quite well, lending the same profile to the tasting experience. There are lots of honey essences, alongside a big, almost cider-like Apple flavour. The Belgian yeast is still present, but the esters have evolved, making it less bright, and carrying instead flavours of dried fruits, like golden raisins and dehydrated peaches. There are still some spicy phenolic attributes. But the usual Belgian yeast clove and cardamon thing has diminished, and now just subtly integrates into the big fruity honey malt bomb that’s happening here. There is a sweetness to this beer, but it’s cut immediately by some nice wine tannins in the finish, leaving a long dry linger of vinous oak and honey.
Like everything from Le Castor this is incredibly balanced and subtle in its own intensity. The wine really complements the beer as a whole, which would likely come off a bit cloying without it. The tannins cut through the finish, which allows the beers to shine nicely. Wine barrel for the win!
This “Brett” version of Sanctuaire was released about a year after the regular version (a couple of months ago). However, the interesting thing is that both these beers are exactly the same age. Le Castor was not 100% satisfied with how it was drinking at the time, so they decided to sit on the bottles for an entire year until it was ready. These kinds of decisions really showcase how much integrity and love Le Castor has for their products, and beer itself. It’s impressive and a refreshing reminder that the people behind craft beer aren’t generally only about the bottom line.
Sanctuaire Brett pours out a robust orange colour with yellow highlights, and carries a dense frothy white head. The nose begins with beautiful brett components. Dusty phenols meet berry-like esters, and when combined with the tangy red wine layers, this makes for an aromatic masterpiece. There are peaches and apricots as well, with a nice zesty apple cider thing.
The flavours mimic the nose, throwing a bunch of fruitiness at my palate. There are apricots, plums and peaches dancing around a nice tannic wine presence. This helps clean away any sweetness, leaving a dry finish. The brett plays a major role, adding loads of dry dusty funk and some damp basement. As well, it lends a earthy phenolic finish, further drying the beer and making it more palatable. There is a vanilla oak component, and when coupled with the fruit and subtle sweetness, adds such an amazing new layer to the whole thing.
There is an amazing overall rounded balance to this beer; it has a big bold body, with just a slight booze burn and some intense flavours that dance on your palate. Despite its robust and potent character, it drinks incredibly well, with a complexity that takes all these components, adds them together, and creates a product that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
This bretted version is a completely different monster. There are no longer any of those typical spicy Belgian yeast phenols, and any sugars that were perceived now seem to have been eaten away, making this a perfectly attenuated masterpiece. That being said, the regular un-bretted version is also delicious. It is a great, modern and more refined take on a Trappist-styled Belgian Tripel. The wine remnants and tannins help control the sugars, creating a balanced beer. Of the two, however, Sanctuaire Brett is one of the best beers I’ve had in Quebec this year. It hits all the right notes, never giving you too much or too little. There are still some lingering on shelves around Montreal. I highly recommend grabbing some.
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest