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“The Bourbon variant plays out much like you would expect... but the port plays out completely differently."

Boughs of Barley 2019

The season is drawing nigh. Temperatures are dropping, the world is decorated in greens and reds, and we’ve even seen a few snowflakes.

The holidays will be here before you know it. 

It’s almost time to break out the ice skates and to perfect your often-imitated-but-never-duplicated snowman-building technique. Polish up the skis and dust off the sled. Ice up your arm because the kid next door has been getting really good over the past few winters with his snowball aim.

And you’re going to want to keep warm while doing those things. That’s where this year’s variants of Boughs of Barley come in.

This is our fourth iteration of Boughs of Barley, and we’ve changed it up each year. The first time around, we brought you a bourbon barrel-aged barleywine, the second year we barrel-aged a Belgian dark in bourbon and cognac barrels, and last year we aged an imperial stout in cognac and scotch barrels.

Not to be outdone, this year we specially brewed a Baltic Porter, then laid it down in some bourbon and port wine barrels. Essentially an imperial porter, we began with a big, yet simple, beer.

“It’s a big, smooth, rich, yet easy-drinking dark beer that has no roast character and finishes silky smooth,” Innovation Director Brian Hink says.

However, unlike a big, complex imperial stout, the grain bill for a Baltic Porter is more on the simple side.

“It’s a really simple malt bill,” Brian says, “designed to be delicate and balanced. We didn’t want a crazy complex malt bill with a lot of layers here, but there had to be enough of a malt backbone to stand up to the barrel aging.” 

The malt bill for the base brew contains only three malts: pilsner, chocolate malts, and C65. The latter was a new one for us at Straight to the Pint, and, in passing, we were able to get some information from our former brewer, now Packaging Director, Mark Graves.

“It’s a crystal malt,” he explained. “The 65 refers to how long they kiln it: it’s kinda like a saturation scale when you’re working with pictures in Photoshop, so a 10 would be a very light caramel flavor, but a 65 would have more of the caramel sweetness and color. It adds a bit of sweetness that’s perfect for a beer like this.”

And these are definitely some big beers. The port variant clocks in at a 10.5% ABV and the bourbon is 11.2%. They’ll certainly keep you warm throughout the winter.

The base Baltic Porter is “all about balance” according to Brian, with Bravo hops and our House Lager yeast, both of which help to balance out this brew before filling our beautiful barrels.

“They were very freshly dumped and smelled amazing when we got them in,” Brian says.

While we love to barrel-age at Cape May Brewing Company, it’s not without its challenges. Each barrel is its own thing: no two are alike.  

“Each barrel is almost like a snowflake because no two are exactly the same,” says Lab Manager Lauren Appleman.

There are a ton of factors endemic to a barrel that will affect its influence upon the beer inside.

“Some of the staves could have been more saturated with the liquid it previously held, which would lead that specific barrel to have a boozier flavor and aroma,” she continues. “Leaky barrels, blown bungs, or very porous wood can all impact the microbiome of the barrel.”

Even where the barrels are positioned in the Barrel Room can affect the finished product.

“Warm air rises, so the barrels at the top of the stack — which are around 15 feet higher than the low levels — have warmer arm surrounding them,” Brian explains. “Are they positioned by the front door and thus getting a lot of potential cross-breeze? What’s the humidity like in the room? It better be a stable temperature: the last thing we want to see are large swings. So yes, every barrel is very different.”

We need to guard against any potential issues, so we give each one an individual taste before we rack it back into a stainless tank.

“One bad barrel can bring down the entire blend, and for that reason, we taste every barrel individually before they get blended back into stainless,” Lauren explains.

Yet, the barrels we received for Boughs of Barley 2019 were particularly beautiful. Port was an interesting choice for us, and for beer on the whole: it’s not often you find beer aged in port wine barrels.

“We knew we were going with bourbon as one of the two barrels,” Brian explains, “so we wanted the other barrel to definitely be different and be able to stand out on its own while being able to complement the base beer in its own way.”

We’d discussed rum, tequila, perhaps going back to cognac for another year, but the port barrels stood out as being a potentially great idea.

“We talked about what port might bring to the table,” Brian says, “how it would compare and contrast to the bourbon variant, the uniqueness it could have, and it really made a lot of sense to go this route.”

For the bourbon variant, we used barrels from a few different sources: there are some well-recognized names among the brands of bourbons that we used to create this variant.

“Each one had their own uniquenesses that they brought to the table,” Brian says. “It was a fun take on the project because it allowed us to see what each different bourbon brought to the table, with each brand offering differing results.” 

This year’s Boughs of Barley will be available in 750ml bottles. Since we’re to the point where we’re canning everything, going back to bottling is not without its challenges.

“We break out the old six-head gravity filler for these 750ml bottle releases,” Lauren explains.

We’ve bottle-conditioned these brews, as well, which differs from a typical release.

“Normally, we are carbonating the beer in the brite tank and it goes into the can at that level of carbonation,” she says. “But with bottle-conditioning, we add yeast and sugar into the tank right before we bottle.”

Then, we’ll age and condition the bottles for a month or so before we release the end product, allowing the yeast to consume the sugars and carbonate the bottle, which can be tricky on its own.

“You need to work quickly to get the beer in the bottle so that all of the refermentation happens within the bottle,” Lauren explains. “We check in on the bottles about every other week to make sure the carbonation levels are where we want them.”

They will continue to condition as they age, slowly morphing and changing into something a little more mellow and a little more excellent. 

Yet, right now, these are truly some splendid beers, certain to complete any holiday get-together. They’re wildly different from one another, but they complement each other beautifully.

That’s what Brian loves about these beers: the differences between them.

“The Bourbon variant plays out much like you would expect: vanillans and chocolately undertones, with rich, velvety textures,” he says, “but the port plays out completely differently. Tart and vinous, more tannic oak qualities, and a real jammy finish to it, the port variant definitely shines a little brighter out of these two variants.”

Lauren agrees.

“I’m really digging the port variant this year,” she says. “There is a slight tartness with tannic qualities that you would expect to come from a port barrel. It really helps that the base beer for this was spectacular in its own right, but the barrel aging really elevated it.”

Both variants release from the Brewtique on Black Friday, November 29th, at 9am, and will only be available at Cape May Brewing Company. We’ve got a ton of great deals planned for the shopping season that kick off that day, as well. Don’t miss out!