19 February 2009

Division of labour

The six-pack I bought at the Big Mikkeller Launch back in September has been sitting quietly in my attic ever since. Most of the bottles could do with a bit more ageing, I reckon, but a couple had dates recommending drinking by next autumn, so I figured they were ripe enough already.

At first glance it's hard to tell what separates silver-labelled Kølle from bronze-labelled TræKølle: both barley wines are the same strength, same bitterness level and from the same company (Amager, in association with Mikkeller, with co-operation from retailers Ølbutikken and ØlKonsortiet). Rather than try to pick a drinking order, Mrs Beer Nut and I decided to open them both at the same time and take it from there.

Kølle has that typical heady, alcoholic barley wine aroma: sweet yet hoppy. It follows this with a massive super-concentrated grapefruit hit, then comes a big metallic, galvanic tang -- nasty, like licking a pencil sharpener -- and then a long slow burn of citric hoppiness. It reminds me a lot of the insanely unbalanced Mikkeller Simcoe IPA being served at the European Beer Festival. A glance at the label suggests that Simcoe is indeed the single hop employed here. A bit more ageing might have let it mellow, but I couldn't be sure that something as good as, say, Bigfoot, would be likely to come out the other end. It's an awful lot thinner, for a start, making it hard to believe the strength is a stonking 10.5% ABV.

TræKølle, it seems, is the same beer matured on bourbon barrels. It's a little darker and strikingly lacks that fresh citric hops aroma -- all taken by those greedy angels, I guess. Unsurprisingly, the flavour is dominated by vanilla oak notes, the bourbon history being more than suggested. I'm inclined to say that the hop character is low, but that could be just by comparison with the other Simcoe bomb. It is bitter, however -- both beers claim 90 IBUs -- though here it's more of an acidic character against Kølle's sharp fruitiness. TræKølle is a mellower, calmer, sipping sort of barley wine, even though it does share the skinny body of its wilder sibling. We both preferred this version.

So there we have an object lesson on the effect of bourbon barrel ageing on outrageously hoppy beers. I reckon we can expect more of this kind of thing as 2009 progresses. Barrels are in.


  1. The range of possible barrels to play with is immense, I wondered a while back if Marsala barrels would be worth a try. I know of one brewery who age some of their beers in barrels that previously held tokaj wine.

  2. Those are some handsome looking bottles. And the beer sounds like a rollercoaster - 10.5% barleywine with 90IBUs and aged in bourbon barrels!? NICE!

  3. Al -- have you tried it? That sounds like it could be overwhelmingly sweet and woody.

    Mark, when you're selling at Danish prices there's no point doing things half-arsed.

  4. The marsala or the tokaj? The tokaj was very nice, indeed you have tried it as well - the Kocour V3 smoked beer which I believe you had in Copenhagen.

  5. Ahhh. With smoke all is forgiven.
    /waves thurible.

  6. Half-arsed doesn't appear to be the Mikkeller way, that's why they rock!

  7. Laurent Mousson11:09 am

    Yeah right, playing with barrels is a first step, but the whole thing with oak-aged beer may still be a bit gimmicky and heavy-handed so far.

    The next step, beyond the novelty of "yeah, tastes of Burgundy" and "yeah, tastes of Rum", will be to make oak-aged stuff that can stand up and walk on its own. Stuff that'll leave you gaping in front of so much complexity, balance and subtlety, yet without overwhelming "flavour".

    Blending is the way ahead, mark my words, and it's a skill brewers dabbling with oak aging will have to acquire if they want to evolve further. Just as a good blender is crucial to build up a good gueuze out of various lambics.

    The one notorious oak-aged beer brewed here in Switzerland, BFM's Abbaye de St Bon-Chien, is the result of such a blend, which was the idea from the start, as Jérôme Rebetez, BFM's brewer, was trained as a vintner and oenologist before switching to beer, and no stranger to the art of blending.
    As a matter of fact, although not every beer buff likes it, BFM's AdSBC does go down extremely well with many wine buffs, which may explain why Eric Asimov, chief wine editor at the NY Times, was raving about it when reporting on a tasting of 25 oak-aged beers back in January.
    Might be another step towards shattering wino preconceptions about beer...

  8. Anonymous11:16 am

    There is some buzz right now about sherry and madeira barrel ales from Thornbridge - http://web.mac.com/jaipuripa/iweb/thornbridge/buy.html.
    Looks promising.
    And Haandbryggeriet in Norway has just bottled their Aquavit Porter, I don't know when and where it's going to be released, though.

  9. The madeira and Pedro Ximinez aged beers from Thornbridge are very very good indeed. There's still a lot of barrel aging to be experimented with - and I think barrel blends could be a side-step.

    Aquavit porter? Interesting! I want an imperial stout aged in cherry brandy casks or a big IPA aged in calvados barrels (they've probably been done but I haven't seen/had them).

  10. And some brewers are using wine barrels to age beer in too, I think Russian River is one (he's got a wine background are they're in California).

    It's interesting to compare to glasses of the same beer side by side, one that's barrel-aged and one that isn't. The differences can be huge.

  11. Pleased to hear about the Thornbridge Alliance as I currently have some awaiting collection at the brewery (along with some two year old Islay, Speyside and Highland cask versions of St Petersbury Imperial Stout).

    Of course cider makers have been maturing their products inrum and whisky casks for some years now, with variable degrees of success. There's someone out there now selling Islay casks to cider makers and I wish they'd stop 'cos the end result is pretty horrible.

  12. Laurent said: "Yeah right, playing with barrels is a first step, but the whole thing with oak-aged beer may still be a bit gimmicky and heavy-handed so far."

    I agree. It's a whole different kind of extreme beer. I find that, even when I like them, drinking more than about 125ml of some of these beers makes me feel a bit sick.

    It's still an intriguing development, though.

  13. Anonymous10:23 am

    Bailey, I didn't think you were drinking milliliters in England?

  14. I'm lucky enough to have grown up measuring people's height in feet and inches; short distances in centimetres and metres; long distances in miles; large measures in pints and gallons; and smaller measures in millilitres. The wonders of the UK's half-hearted adoption of the metric system!