Boughs of Barley Returns!
The best things come to those who wait.
You’ve heard that a million times — from your mom, from your teachers, from that Heinz ketchup commercial in the 80s starring Joey from Friends — but it’s the truth.
It’s the building of anticipation. It’s the hope that greater things lie in store. It’s the knowledge that, in time, there can be a greater version of yourself.
The guys in the brewery know a thing or two about waiting, particularly when it comes to barrel aging. This is one thing you simply can’t rush. If you’re looking for perfection, you have to sit back and wait.
But, for this year, at least, the wait is over. Boughs of Barley 2018 releases on Black Friday!
“Boughs of Barley has always been a fun and experimental route for us,” says Director of Brewing Operations Jimmy Valm, “playing around with rarer styles of giant, spirit barrel-aged beers, and it’s always taken us in new directions.”
Our first iteration back in 2016 was a bourbon barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned barleywine that nearly broke the B key on our keyboard. Last year, we tried our hand at a Belgian dark ale aged in Cognac and Bourbon barrels.
“I love variants,” says Head Brewer Brian Hink, “and with big, barrel-aged beers, that’s a really fun playground to be in, but when we first started talking about doing Boughs of Barley I didn’t want to just do the standard vanilla, coconut, coffee, etc. variants, but instead let the barrel act as an ingredient and be the variant itself.”
So, this time around, we’ve been aging an Imperial stout in Cognac and Scotch Whisky barrels — the Cognac for about a year, the Scotch for 18 months.
“When we first did Boughs of Barley,” Brian says, “we wanted to let the barrels be the built-in variant, with the loose idea that the new barrel this year becomes the second-use next year when a new spirit type is brought in.”
“I’ve always liked to see what we can come up with through our barrel program,” says Lab Manager Lauren Appleman. “This years’ Boughs of Barley lean to the dark side with two very different final products coming off of a good Imperial Stout base. The character of the barrels really shows through in each version.”
Last year was the first run with those beautiful Cognac barrels, so we were sure that they’d be up for refilling this year, and Jimmy has been wanting to barrel age using Scotch barrels since… well… since he’s known about both barrel aging and Scotch.
“I lived in Scotland for four years and fell in love with Scotch,” he explains, “which has more variation in flavor than Bourbon or American Whiskey, or even Irish Whiskey. There are sweet ones that were aged in ex-Sherry or ex-Port barrels, smokey ones that were made from barley dried out over smoldering piles of peat, and smooth ones that have been distilled an extra time to make a gentler spirit. The smokey ones are my favorite, and we managed to get our hands on some barrels from my favorite distillery out on Islay, the home of the peat-monster whiskies.”
Spending 18 months in those barrels, the Scotch version definitely picked up a great deal of the smokiness as well as a good bit of oakiness. When married with the rich chocolate overtones of the stout and the roasty flavors of the dark malts, the Scotch variant comes through with a great deal of complexity.
“The guys on production who enjoy Scotch really enjoy this beer,” Brian says. “It’s definitely peaty — or smokey — and that is the dominant characteristic out of the gate. The underlying Stout body and character are present and are big enough to withstand the barrage from the barrel’s character. The resulting beer is very intense.”
On the other hand, the Cognac variant is a little more subtle, a little more reserved. There was still quite a bit of life left in those barrels, but, as second-use barrels (for us, anyway), the lion’s share of the Cognac character was imparted to last year’s Boughs of Barley.
The plus side is that it allows more of the beer’s character to shine through, and you get a bit of the molasses and cocoa from the previous year’s Belgian Ale.
“You get a subtle sweetness,” Brian says, “which I think comes from the Cognac barrel, and that cuts through the roasty stout undertone just enough to paint a deeper portrait.”
From the Cognac barrels, you’ll see more dark fruits and vanilla tones, with an underlying sweetness from the Cognac. Pairing these flavors with an Imperial Stout is almost a no-brainer.
“Matching Cognac and a stout just makes so much sense to me,” Jimmy says. “Maybe because I’ve done it: sat by a roaring fire with a nice Cognac and some dark European chocolate to nibble on. They complement each other so well.”
Frankly, that sounds like the perfect way to spend Christmas. Add a slumbering dog of questionable pedigree and a perfectly-appointed Douglas fir and this could be next year’s Christmas card.
However, these brews are conceived to share. In fact, please don’t drink an entire one yourself. They’re 750ml of at least 11% ABV. The last thing you want is to end up under the table and dreaming during Christmas dinner.
“Christmas is a season of sharing,” Lauren says. “There is nothing better than a gathering of friends and family, and nothing brings people together like sharing a bottle. And at 11% you will definitely want to share or you may end up as the drunk family member.”
Now, you’re gonna be tempted to age these bad boys, and we don’t blame you. There’s really no reason not to stick two of these in the back of your cellar and pop them open next Christmas. However, they’re also perfect right now. We’ve aged them for a year or more already.
“Flavors do develop in the bottle,” Brian says, “there’s no denying that. But personally, I’m trying to get to the point where when I get a bottle of a big barrel aged beer I’m drinking it in a more timely manner, not letting these beers pile up in my closet or fridge.”
“We’ll see how long they last,” he says. “I’m going to age one for around a year, and maybe the others at 18 months and two years, but I might extend it beyond that, too. For the Scotch barrel-aged variant, I’d like to see how the phenols that give that smokey flavor last over time, obviously they last very well in a barrel while making Scotch, but in a lower alcohol beer with live yeast it might be a different story, so the longer aging will be a bit of a test.”
So, moral of the story: buy multiple bottles. Crack a few this year, crack a few next year. If you planned ahead, you may have a few bottles of Boughs of Barley 2016 lying around, ready to join you on this year’s Christmas dinner.
Regardless, you’re likely going to want to pick up both variants.
“I love how different they are from each other,” Brian says, “that the barrel character is so strong that you can tell instantly that these are basically two different beers.”
While it should come as no surprise that Jimmy is a little partial to the Scotch variant, he’s loving the Cognac version, as well.
“Smoke in a beer can be a divisive issue,” he says, “and some just chock it up to being like a campfire or like bacon, but the smoke character in the Scotch variant is so much more. There’s this complex, earthy tone to it from the peat soil, and the way it comes together with the oakiness and the roasted malts is amazing. And the Cognac variant is so inviting, I think it will be loved by more of our fans (even if the ones preferring the Scotch variant are more passionate in their zeal).”
So, swing down to the Brewtique on Black Friday. Not only will we have some killer deals on our swag, but you’ll also get the chance to give Boughs of Barley a try!