Monday, May 19, 2008

Separated at birth

At the amber core of all devil whisky there lies a heart of pure, sweet beer. Barring the addition of hops (and really, who uses those anymore, anyway?), up until the moment the wash is run up the still to capture the water of life, the stuff you're dealing with is essentially the makings of beer. (And yes, I know you also don't boil the wash before inoculating it, but I can think of at least one un-boiled beer out there.) It shouldn't, then, be much of a surprise to anyone following the current art of the brewing craft that there are efforts underway to reunite the long divorced brethren of beer and spirits, through a variety of means.

Breweries toying with toasted tastes: Fans of "extreme beers" know the drill by now: Brew it big, brew it strong, brew it diabolically rich, and then roll out the bourbon barrels. The vanilla of the oak and char of the staves are incredibly trendy and desirable characteristics in big beefy stouts and porters, where brewers of high abv ales are quickly learning that it's those very same smoothing characteristics of wood-aging that distillers have used for generations to offset the fire of the alcohol.

Examples: Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout, O'Fallon Whiskey Barrel Smoked Porter, Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

Breweries dabbling in distilling: In a completely natural evolutionary step, restlessly creative brewers (once they get the big OK from the Feds) are taking to distilling their own spirits. And not surprisingly, the results they're getting are drawing rave reviews, no small thanks to the discipline involved in being a successful craft brewer: Take only the best ingredients you can get, and keep a close eye on the process from start to finish. Distribution of these delicacies is a totally different matter, however, but the difficulty of tracking these down is more than made up for by the hand-crafted experience of enjoying them.

Examples: Dogfish Head Brown Honey Rum, Anchor Steam Old Potrero, Anchor Steam Junipero Gin, Rogue Spruce Gin

Distillers playing with beer: Like I mentioned above, the making of most grain alcohols involves a process which, in the abstract at least, is identical to brewing, up to the point at which the wort/wash is fermented (when the brewer goes "whoohoo!" and starts a-drinkin', and the whiskymaker says "very well then" and proceeds to distill it, rack it into barrels, and wait a good 8 years). So it shouldn't be much of a shock that some distillers has gone all the way and taken a finished beer and distilled it down to its pure essence. Who knows? Maybe this could be the spirit that cocktail mixologists latch onto as a platform for exploring beerish flavors in their concoctions.

Examples: Essential Spirits Classick American Bierschnaps, Essential Sprits Sierra Nevada American Bierschnaps

Beer cocktails: Nothing new, obviously, cocktails made with beer as a base rather than a spirit are making the slightest bit of a comeback for a couple reasons. Strict liquor licensing laws (the same ones that prohibit sales of hard alcohol at certain eateries) have put creative restaurateurs in the challenging position of attracting a cocktail-hungry audience with limited tools at their disposal. Sake was the big one for a while, being the base for a whole generation of knockoff drinks where it played the role of vodka, tequila, or gin in establishments where those types aren't welcome. Interestingly, the increasing role of beer cocktails on bar menus has as much to do with the consistently increasing quality of the beers they have opportunity to play with. So while they won't be replacing the Hendrick's in my martini with cucumber beer anytime soon, it does seem like creative types in the bar scene are taking note of the wide variety of flavors beer currently places at their disposal.

Examples: Picon bière, Radler

And what will the next wave of cross-craft hybrid beveraging bring? If the successes of Dogfish Head's experiments-turned-mainstream of adding grapes to beer* in Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu and Russian River's continued investigation on the use of California wine barrels in the production of their Belgian-inspired ales are any indications, we'll be seeing more handshaking between brewers and winemakers, as the two industries have generated the world's foremost experts in fermentation science, yet have a long, storied history of working independently of each other in a way that's allowed for the perception of antagonism between the two. One might think that a collaboration between them might relieve a bit of the pressure they're both feeling from their respective fields...

Big ups to Mr. Drinkaweek for many of the inspired linkfodder above.

* I'm still looking for a good term for these types of creations. If mead with malt added is braggot, and mead with grapes is pyment, would malt with grapes be... pygot? bryment?

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Blogger drinkaweek said...

If you want to try yourself a Picon bière, and want to take a break from beer making you could give this a shot.

And then give me a bottle.

10:07 AM  

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