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Pot Holes

It’s Thursday February 26th and I am at home having just put Sydney down for the evening. Maureen is in DC visiting some friends and I have Sydney all to myself for the next three days. It should be interesting. We’re releasing Brandy Angel’s Share this weekend and celebrating Carnevale on Saturday night in a sort of day night double header for Port Brewing. Thank God for Grandparents! Still, church on Sunday is probably going to hurt…

I haven’t had a beer all day (chasing an almost three year old around will do that to me). So, I just popped the cork on a 375 ml bottle of Bourbon Angel’s Share. This dates back to our last release in March of 2008. And by pop, I truly mean POP! You see, when we packaged this last batch of Angel’s Share, we went ahead and Krausened the batch with a freshly fermenting batch of Angel’s Share. It was fortuitous to say the least that we had a new batch going at the same time we were packaging the old one. It was also the first time we had primed our bottles this way.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best way to carbonate the Bourbon Angel’s Share as the Krausening batch fermented out at a lower terminal gravity causing our bottles to carbonate at a more elevated level than perhaps we would like. The bottle I just opened is gassier than the Blue Hairs at Hometown Buffet at 4:30 on a Tuesday. But I’m okay with that (our beer not the blue hairs)!

The good news in all of this is that the newest batch of Brandy Angel’s Share is more alcoholic than in years past due to this lower terminal gravity. But it also means that we’re now entering interesting waters. On Saturday, we will release our third batch of Brandy Angel’s Share and later in March we will release our second Bourbon Angel’s share as well. Welcome my friends to the waters of unpredictable barrel aged beer versions from year to year.

As a producer, I’ve come to the realization that we’re dealing with a living fire breathing monster when it comes to barrel aged beers. In some ways, they are liquid crapshoots. Go ask a winemaker and see if they don’t nod their head in silent agreement. This is one of the reasons that they specialize in blending. It affords better consistency. But, no matter how hard we work towards a consistent barrel aged beer, there are roadblocks at every turn. Much of this has to do with barrel procurement and duration from spirit dump to barrel refilling. Sometimes, it’s out of our control.

As such, I’m beginning to think of myself as a Cal Trans worker who tends to the roads in our glorious state. Sometimes, the roads they work require little assistance. These freshly poured asphalt highways, are our smooth epic batches of beers. Other times, they get called out to massage the road back into shape filling in pot-holes. These seem to be batches that can be saved but need tweaking. This is where a great beer can emerge from a barrel but doesn’t always. And lastly, there are those times when they are called out for long term issues. This would be akin to fixing sinkholes in the ground. These are batches of beer that once showed promise and now may never be restored to their former glory. These are the batches of beer that burn consumers the most.

I am reminded of this as I am sitting here half way through my glass of Angel’s Share. I’m enjoying the bottle but not as much as I do the Brandy Barrel version of this beer and in particular the original batch from 2006. What is perhaps most interesting to me is that the business of beer more or less sells beer on fixed pricing structures. This is not always the case in the wine business where vintages are celebrated, lauded and command differentiation of pricing from year to year.

I wonder as more and more breweries commit their resources, energy and space to barrel aging if this won’t be the direction the industry moves in. I’m not advocating it, merely pointing out that we have yet to see this even though there is so much variation in the barrel aging of beer. It seems that almost every brewery in America now has a bourbon barrel or four in their breweries. And, there seems to be a fixed pricing structure relative to barrel aged beers that doesn’t celebrate the best of the best. In this way, mediocrity is rewarded. Worked for the wine business. But do we really need 280 buttery chardonnays from California?

It’s tough this barrel aged thing, a lot like drinking flabby Chardonay. And I would know. Before summer, we’ll have over 500 oak barrels worth of beer aging at the brewery. Funny thing this barrel aged beer trend. When you talk to wineries, you almost never hear a vintner say “ Yep, we just added our 987th barrel to the facility…” But, in a space race of sorts, we almost HAVE to tell the world how much beer we’re currently aging in oak barrels. We’re guilty of it. Why? Well, it’s sexy for one. But mostly, it’s a point of differentiation. Or at least it used to be.

So tomorrow, we’re going to release our third bottling of Brandy Barrel Angel’s Share. It’s different than the first two. It more closely resembles batch one than two. It shows the promise of a better tomorrow. What does that mean to a beer drinker? Not much other than my glass is empty and there’s a ton of bottles going on sale this Saturday. Let’s hope we’ve done our job and the road less traveled isn’t full of potholes.

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