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When Wood Meets Beer
Dan Grant explores the barrel-aged beer trend at Etobicoke's Sawdust City brewery

Nestled in a dimly lit corner of an Etobicoke brewery, Sawdust City‘s head brewer pulls the bung from one of several stacked barrels. Aaron Spinney then inserts a plastic tube and, using his thumb to seal off the airflow, he lifts out some rarely disturbed liquid.  Releasing the uncarbonated brew into a nearby glass, Spinney drops the hose back in to the barrel, draws more beer and repeats the process until the glass is reasonably full. Then he fills another glass. Then another.

It’s not everyday that Toronto’s Festival of Beer sets you up on a blind date with barrels.  Neatly organized vessels, like something from the set of Donkey Kong, hold cargo very few people have been allowed to sample. For months this beer has seen less action than the Toronto chapter of the Yunel Escobar fan club. On this day, however, with Spinney and fellow beer specialist Sam Gould (@TheBarleyBabe), I’m getting a preview of what’s to come.

The area is meticulously maintained. It might be weakly lit, but it’s violently clean to ensure nothing prevents these brews from writing their intended conclusions. Each recipe needs a bit more time to mature before it will be allowed to enlighten beer drinkers around the GTA.

For an added twist, the good Sawdust folks also tossed 20 kilos of frozen cherries into a couple of these drums (one of which has been dubbed “Dawson’s Kriek,” and has all kinds of fruited goodness built into it).

Sawdust City is just one of many breweries going this route. To celebrate its 25th anniversary last year, Great Lakes Brewery released several barrel-aged bottles, including a very popular Audrey Hopburn (a Belgian IPA, aged in a Pinot Noir barrel) and Robust Porter (an American Porter, aged in a Bourbon barrel). From Mill Street‘s Barley Wine, which is aged in Jack Daniels barrels, to the Spanish cedar that flavours Flying Monkey‘s The Matador. Wood and beer are proving to be a popular combo.

Just how popular?  The 2012 edition of the Ontario Brewing Awards gave a bronze to Cameron’s American Whiskey Barrel in the category of Flavoured Beer.  By the time this year’s edition of the OBAs rolled around, Barrel Aged was its own category.  Next year it’s expected to be split into three separate judging planks.

South of the border, the 2011 Great American Beer Festival (Denver, Colorado) boasted 40 barrel-aged entries in 2011.  So successful was that, 2012’s edition had four styles to differentiate. This year, two of those categories have been subdivided further for a total of six sets of awards to be handed out.

The beauty of the barrel is so much more than just its previous occupant. As Spinney — who’s spending an increasing amount of time geeking out on the subject — explained to us, the character of the wood is not just influenced by what it came in contact with, but also the type of tree, its age and even the time of year it’s harvested. To add to the calculation, each time a barrel is re-used, it loses about 25 per cent of its original character. Selecting a container isn’t as simple as picking a shirt for your kid to wear — this is choosing which boarding school will raise your wee tyke. 

If you’re muttering to yourself, “This ain’t new, Budweiser has been beechwood-aged since horses pulled wagons of beer,” give yourself half marks.  Bud does come in contact with beechwood slats during the lagering (storage) stage, but that’s done to smooth out the texture — not, God forbid, to excite your palate.  

If you’re able to get your hands on some of Sawdust City’s offerings, here’s a guide Sam and I put together to give you an idea of what to expect.

Scotch Barrel: 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: honey / auburn colour

Nose: floral nose, peaches, scotch, wood, honey

Look for: a scent similar to corn flakes

Palate: slightly tart, smooth, wood, baked green apple,

Finish: smooth

Bourbon Barrel (the barrel started at Claremont Springs, Kentucky): 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: nutty, auburn colour

Nose: toffee, burnt sugar, wood, red licorice, caramel, apple, Bourbon, strawberries, plum

Look for: slight barnyard aroma

Palate: vanilla, wood, slight apple tartness, burnt orange, some smokiness

Finish: medium bitter

Dawson’s Kriek: 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: cherry mahogany colour, slight haze

Nose: huge cherry, barnyard, country time lemonade, cocoa bitterness

Look for: a bit of Pinot

Palate: Amarena cherries, dark cocoa palate, lemon zest

Finish: tart, but sweet

[Still to be named, brewed for WVRST] 5.3%

Started as: Sawdust City’s Ol’ Woody Alt Bier

Pours: hazier, slightly darker

Nose: less farmhouse, more tart cherry, lemon, wooden

Look for: vanilla bean (as it breathes)

Palate: sour cherry, slight cocoa, some smokiness

Finish: lingering

The Princess Wears Girl Pants meets ODB (a Tripel) 9.0%

Started as: Sawdust City’s The Princess Wears Girl Pants Belgian Golden Ale

Pours: golden apple / honey

Nose: peach, wood, chardonnay

Look for: grapeseed

Palate: sweet, white grape (big time), boozy

Finish: slightly bitter, with some cashew-like aftertaste

____

Dan Grant is a Prud’homme certified Beer Specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @BrewScout.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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