Last week I wrote about Weyerbacher’s Insanity, a barrel aged barleywine. Well, this week I couldn’t resist cracking open Heresy, the bourbon barrel-aged version of Old Heathen, Weyerbacher’s Russian Imperial Stout.
Why this sudden interest in barrel-aged beer, you may ask? Well, the superficial reasons are that I happen to like bourbon and that I found both while visiting a friend in New Jersey. Deeper than that, however, is that the aging process provides a wonderful depth to the beer. Bourbon barrels are used because the charring process caramelizes some of the sugars in the wood, which then impart both a woody taste and the beautiful, sweet vanilla classic taste of bourbons. Much of the flavor in whiskey comes from the distilling and aging process, and beer can benefit from the aging as well.
Weyerbacher is a moderately sized microbrewery located in Easton, Pa. The brewery was founded in 1995 by Dan and Sue Weirbeck, and in 2005 they purchased Victory Brewing Co.’s 25-barrel brew system. Even this increased capacity was quickly outstripped and has since been upgraded to a 40-barrel brew kettle and whirlpool. Among the upgrades is a new bottling line that increased their capacity to 250 cases per hour, which, along with the new brewhouse, has allowed the company to expand distribution to 18 states. Weyerbacher has made a name for itself producing high-gravity beers and was one of the pioneering breweries in the use of barrel aging for regular-release beers.
The beer poured a jet black, with no light being let through. Usually Russian imperials are dark but have some nice highlights when they are held up to the light; no such luck with this one. The head formed as a skim of dark brown bubbles, but these disappeared in seconds, leaving only a tiny bit of lacing on the sides of the glass. The aroma was primarily of a big, sweet vanilla from the bourbon barrels, with a nice touch of roast that provided some depth. The body was quite thick with a fairly low carbonation, giving a heavy mouthfeel. The taste was malt focused, with a higher sweet from both the malt and the bourbon barrels competing with the roastiness in this beer. The finish was slightly sweet with a wonderfully pronounced chocolate note.
This beer was very enjoyable, but it wasn’t a very good RIS. It was smooth and balanced, which was pleasant, but I was left wondering where on Earth the hops were. It’s like there were almost no hops added at all, really. I would pair it with powerful cheeses, as more mild ones will be overwhelmed. A nice creamy brie or very sharp cheddar are my favorite choices as usual, although in this case a Gouda will add to the complexity wonderfully. In terms of meats, this beer will stand up to red meats or a dark fowl like duck or goose. I would actually like to try this with grilled duck that has been powdered with cocoa, but that will have to wait a bit until I fire up the grill.
I recommend giving this beer a try, especially if you like Brooklyn Brewing Co.’s Black Chocolate stout, or, say, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. This particular beer is less chocolatey, but the oak more than makes up for it in my opinion. Just don’t expect a big American RIS hop character.