When discussing the greatest brewing states, the same names pop up each time: California, Oregon, and Colorado are on everyone’s list. Michigan and North Carolina continue to make strides. But a real dark horse candidate is Pennsylvania. Consider the following:
- ► A rich, arguably unrivaled brewing tradition and history.
- ► The best and most successful US-owned competitor to AB/InBev and Miller Coors mass-marketed lagers in Yuengling.
- ► Respected and award-winning regional players like Victory and Troegs.
- ► Entrenched micros that have been making great beer since the late 1900’s (Stoudts, Weyerbacher, Penn)
- ► Newcomers shaking up the production scene from all corners of the state (Tired Hands, Lavery, Helltown)
Throw in the (very) gradually loosening Blue Laws and vibrant beer weeks in the cultural capitals of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the state of brewing in Pennsylvania has never been brighter. Yet one area this Commonwealth falls short in comparison to other states is that of Prestige Beer. Hype. The White Whales of beer trading circles like Founders KBS, Deschutes Abyss, Cigar City Hunahpu, Three Floyds Dark Lord. Big, barrel-aged beers that throw the beer geeks in a tizzy.
Some may argue that this is not a bad thing. Perhaps there is too much hype in beer. But since I don’t live in Michigan, Oregon, Tampa, or Indiana I have little chance of finding these prestige beers on my local shelves. I do, however, live in Pennsylvania. So the greedy little child in me wants more, despite the plethora of great beer already available to me. I want the barrel-aged barleywines and stouts topping the RateBeer Best of Lists that my friends can’t get. I want to taunt them. I wants to hoards them, my preciousss…
Thus it was with great delight in late 2011 that I read about Victory’s foray into barrel aging with Dark Intrigue- the highly regarded Storm King Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels. Since then, I’ve been able to find and sample four of Victory’s barrel beer projects, with mixed results.
Expectations were perhaps unfairly high with this one. I was hoping for Pennsylvania’s KBS. What I found was a harsh, boozy, unbalanced affair. You could say that the bourbon overwhelmed everything, but for the exceedingly bitter finish of the heavily-hopped Storm King base beer. Storm King also lacks the body and rich mouthfeel of other imperial stouts that benefit with barrel-aging. It’s been said that founders Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski developed it as a black IPA, and as such was perhaps not the best choice for their first foray into barrels- but hindsight is 20/20, and it would be interesting if the bourbon and hoppy-bite have smoothed over after a couple years in the bottle. Unfortunately, I am the world’s worst beer hoarder, and in fact bristle at the notion that such beers are released before they are primed for consumption. Perhaps some of you cellar-dwellers will let me know in the comments. I’d give it 2.5 hops on our scale of 4. RateBeer says 99. Go figure.
Since then the barreled offering have come fast and furious out of Downingtown. Next up was Red Thunder in late 2012, their Baltic Thunder Porter aged in red wine barrels. This one garnered predictably less foaming hype from the mouths of beer intelligentsia, but I found to be quite interesting. The roasty cocoa that dominates Baltic Thunder is rounded out and you get some residual sweetness and some vinous fruit as well (meaning it tastes unsurprisingly a little like red wine). This might be a positive for you, or perhaps not. Again the body of the base beer might be a little thin to stand up and improve with extended aging. Still, an interesting beer that can still be found on the shelves in some Pittsburgh bottle shops.
One of the victims of Victory’s expansion and fermentation capacity challenges of the past few years has been their beloved Old Horizontal Barleywine. A delicious boozy mix of candied fruits and spicy hops, a sixer of Old Horizontal was for many years one of the best bang-for-your buck purchases a Pennsylvania Alehead could make each year. Victory’s new facility currently under construction should make this favorite available again, so it was with great anticipation I cracked into a beautiful corked-and-caged bomber of Oak Horizontal, the bourbon barrel version of the classic. Which is why I was so disappointed with what I found- as though a shot of bourbon had been dropped in my glass. Make that a double shot. I wanted a complex sipper. I got a very expensive boilermaker. I opened it quite cold, and let it decant and warm up. If anything, the booze just became more overwhelming. If I didn’t have a little thing called grit, (and hadn’t paid $15 for it), this would have been a potential drain pour.
If you have a bottle of Oak Horizontal, do not open it yet. This one is yellow, let it mellow. I never go to RateBeer, except when something wildly differs from my expectations. People seem to find it complex, layered, bourbon well-incorporated, blah blah blah. I’m far from a curmudgeon (at least when it comes to beer). I wanted to like Oak Horizontal like Mulder wanted to believe in little green men. I’m a homer. The world’s most homely cheerleader. Sometimes when I browse beer review sites I think I’m losing my mind. Just trust me and age this one, perhaps until your kids graduate from college. Let’s move on.
Let’s end on a happy note, shall we? I found the White Monkey, Victory’s popular Golden Monkey Trippel aged in white wine barrels, to be a delightful success. The tart apple and citrus notes of the wine work great with Monkey’s sweet banana esters. Dangerously drinkable, this would be a perfect way to introduce any staunch oenophiles in your life to the possibilities of craft beer. An excellent complement to fish, poultry, soft cheeses, etc. Highly recommended.
So what are the conclusions drawn from Victory’s foray into the wooded arts?
- ► Bourbon barrel aging, does not, contrary to my previously held opinion, improve every beer by default.
- ► While cognizant of the cost and time involved in bringing projects like Dark Intrigue and Oak Horizontal to market, I’m of the opinion that Victory should have looked at blending options or extending the aging times before these beers went out to consumers.
- ► Wine barrel aging of unconventional styles has a ton of potential. White Monkey was one of the better new beers I’ve tried this year.
- ► We are still in the age of craft beer discovery. Brewers are going to try stuff. Some of it is going to work. Some of it, not so much. It’s just beer and I probably shouldn’t take it so seriously.
- ► Pennsylvania’s answer to KBS and Dark Lord has yet to be brewed, which is a great opportunity for a state that certainly has the brewing talent to do it.
So Aleheads, have you tried these beers? Do you agree with my assessments, or am I out in the weeds on this one? It wouldn’t be the first time. Let me know.