Town Hall Barrel Aged Week
Town Hall has become the local OG of barrel aging, and every year around this time, the brewpub becomes nearly synonymous with Barrel Aged Week, the annual event showcasing wood-aged beer. I’ve enjoyed covering it (and also drinking it) in years past. From year to year, it gets a variable amount of attention depending on the whims of the craft beer audience. For fear that it be overlooked next week, I’ll not bury the lede: this is THE YEAR to make your way to Seven Corners.
First, this year’s concept amplifies the food pairing aspect of Barrel Aged Week, and Chef Mike Hanson has taken the food in a unique direction. Look for more game meats and a stronger relationship between the kitchen and the brewhouse for Tuesday’s ticketed dinner. Hanson has developed pairings like grilled venison and blue cheese souffle with Twisted Trace, an American Barleywine aged in bourbon barrels. Unfortunately, you’ll have to imagine the interplay between the funky, heavy cheese and boozy malt because this year’s dinner is sold out.
Fear not, however, there is at least one food special that will be going on all week, no reservations required: a smoked prime rib sandwich with garlic cream sauce and caramelized onion. The meat has been smoked on barrel staves and cooked, in part, sous vide.
The star, of course, is the beer. The 13th Town Hall Barrel Aged week features 13 meticulously prepared beers, most of which have been in the barrels since before the 12th annual event. Brewmaster Mike Hoops has been using wood again for even longer – he first added beer to oak barrels in 2000. This year, about 4 or 5 selections are entirely new recipes unlike any in the past, while several of the perennial favorites have returned, different, of course, as all vintages will be. Over the last few years, the event has continued to grow, and increasing demand, as well as barrel variety, mean that the growing collection of barrels is primarily housed in an off-site space.
For die-hard fans or those looking for one specific beer, keep in mind the following dates:
Sunday: Growler Presale at 10am, during which you can obtain tickets for 750ml growlettes. Each style is only allotted 50-125 tickets (read: get coffee, get in line). Monday: Barrel Crew Selections release at 5pm, read on for more details. Tuesday: The remaining beers release at 5pm and the week is in full swing until supply runs out!
Monday night features four beers that are total all-stars, individual barrels that — through expertise and alchemy — turned out to be fantastic. These are exceptional beers that would be a shame to dilute with their outstanding but somewhat less formidable neighbors. The idea of releasing them to the public was inspired by one particular barrel from last year’s harvest. The four Barrel Crew Selections are examples of E.T. Wee – a Scottish Wee Heavy described here, Project 3106 – bourbon-barreled Belgian-style bruin with Belgian dark chocolate and kumquats, Twisted Trace – Barleywine in bourbon barrels, the best in class according to Hoops – and the Kentucky Truffle on nitro – also described below.
E.T. Wee: During tasting, I got the clear sense that this is Hoops’ personal favorite, in the sense that parents have unspoken favorite children. For an 8% ABV Scottish Wee Heavy, it’s not sweet, and I find it fairly delicate on the palate for its degree of robust malt flavor and bourbon notes. A tobacco-must nose is a major talking point, while the finish is classically bourbon-influenced. Enjoy some light spice and fig notes throughout sipping, especially with warmth.
Despite the rise in popularity of barrel aged beer, there is still a lack of knowledge among consumers about the barrel process. First, bear in mind that these barrels have to be obtained. After 13 years you may be surprised that Hoops insists on visiting the barrels in their natural habitat before purchasing them. This is why he doesn’t use brandy, Armagnac, or other exotic barrels, though he has made a rare exception for tequila in the past. Furthermore, as the distilling process is evolving over time and demand for second-use barrels increases, barrel markings have become more obscure and the age of the spirit they formerly contained is less obvious. The fact remains that small inconsistencies in barrels can come through in the beer, which is part of why expert blending is key.
Barley Vine: The rise in beer and wine in combination and the blurring of lines between beverages is exemplified in the Barley Vine, an American barleywine aged in French oak red wine barrels. Town Hall has been working with a particular unnamed winery for a while, and these robust red barrels offer a pleasantly potent, but not overwhelming, vinous note that amplifies dark fruit profile of the beer. Hoops describes this as “really using what the barrel has to offer you.” Don’t force it, he says. The subtle funk due to the microflora left in the barrel attenuate some residual sweetness but there are no vinegar-like flavors to speak of. Mild tannins increase the dryness causing the beer to lift off the palate on finishing.
Strawberry Stave: This fresh combination of flavors is what, in my mind, sets this Barrel Aged Week apart from years past. The base beer is a dark wheat fermented at a cooler temp to avoid strong yeast-derived pehnols and esters. Though there are elements of a German weizen, the minerally nose is a fresh perspective. Bright strawberry character is unlike the majority of fruit beers; rather than cooked or preserved fruit, the strawberry tastes garden-fresh, almost under-ripe. There is no candy-like profile, even though the malty wheat ale and caramelized bourbon notes are there in the background.
This practice of not just showcasing, but highlighting what work the yeast has already done, is the mark of an experienced brewmaster. Hoops is not only a tried-and-true expert in his field, but he’s willing to be creative and capitalize on what the ingredients have to offer (wood being an ingredient). In the case of Strawberry Stave, a dark wheat in bourbon barrels was a reasonable goal. Rather than finding the unexpected esters to be a hurdle, it was actually an invitation to add what otherwise doesn’t seem like a natural flavor in a bourbon wheat ale: berries. And it’s the best one of the bunch.
Kentucky Truffle: The final taste of this preview is based on a candy of the same name which contains chocolate, cream, and bourbon. Though there’s lactose in this beer, it is still quite bitter, with a richness of dark cocoa rather than a richness of body. The Kentucky Truffle is profoundly deep, and it evolves as it warms.
As for the success of the barrels at Town Hall over the years, it’s impossible to attribute to any one factor. Hoops points to the barrels themselves as a source of success. “I clearly believe in the wood,” he remarks.
Stay tuned to Town Hall social media as beers are tapped next week.