Paige Latham Didora
Western Standard by High West and Ballast Point
High West and Ballast Point Brewing Company have teamed up to develop a whiskey-influenced beer at a sessionable ABV. Western Standard, dubbed a “saloon-style lager,” clocks in at only 5.2% ABV (session level for a barrel-aged beer) but showcases robust wood and whiskey character. Where the beer stops and the barrels begin is up for debate, but the result is a stunning display of complex lager, pushing boundaries for both. I find the taste to be similar to a boilermaker, which is a beer with a shot added.
ABV spoke to High West founder David Perkins and Ballast Point brewer James Murray about the beer and the unusual process.
Perkins is nothing if not enthusiastic about Western Standard. It’s his concept and the origin story is one of curiosity. While visiting Ballast Point, he asked a simple question – why are there no barrel-aged lagers? During our talk, I quickly pointed to Doppelbock and other strong German beers which American craft breweries sometimes put into barrels. Historically though, we agreed, these weren’t wood aged.
“Many of the old breweries were using wood,” said Perkins. “There was no taste of wood, but they used wood.” Breweries throughout Europe used wooden vessels but lined them with pitch, including American breweries with German roots, like Schell’s in New Ulm. The tar-like substance prevented any wood taste from entering the beer. Other breweries chose very mild woods for aging.
Today, that would be considered a crime. Wood is seen as an ingredient. And in Western Standard, its a key one. The overall brewing process takes seven weeks, including lagering. It is then blended with the same beer that has been aged for 2-3 weeks in High West bourbon barrels. Murray graciously shed some more light on the process.
ABV: As I understand it, the beer in the barrels was the same as the beer in stainless and the two were blended. Did it scare you to barrel-condition such a low ABV beer? Did you take any special precautions?
Murray: Generally, breweries don’t barrel age low-ABV lagers because of the potential risk of contamination. For this new offering, we put in extra quality measures to mitigate risk. We are able to barrel age our low-ABV Western Standard Saloon Lager because we use extremely fresh High West Barrels (freshly emptied). These “wet” barrels ward off potential contaminants. In addition, our Barrel Aging and Quality Team actively sample these barrels for micro stability and flavor impact.
ABV: How did you develop a malt bill and hopping schedule differently from a typical beer knowing it would be so spirit-forward?
Murray: We designed Western Standard’s malt bill to mimic rye whiskey and bourbon recipes. The addition of corn and rye in higher than normal quantities really plays well with the aroma and flavors from the High West barrels. We chose a hopping schedule with Centennial hops added at the beginning of our boil to provide crisp bitterness without being overpowering in the flavor profile.
ABV: What do you hope to try in the future in partnership with High West?
Murray: At Ballast Point, we’ve previously collaborated with our friends at High West to create several innovative brews that are part of our brand. Last year, we introduced High West Barrel Aged Victory at Sea, which ages our imperial porter with coffee and vanilla flavors in High West bourbon and rye casks. This past August, we released the limited-edition Rye Barrel Aged Piper Down, which ages our award-winning Scottish Ale in charred American oak High West rye barrels. We look forward to partnering again in the future.
Look for Western Standard on draft in the Twin Cities now. Bottles are debuting at select liquor stores, too (I recently found one six-pack at South Lyndale Liquors). Last night I enjoyed the bottled version — and I tasted it with a very critical eye, wondering if I was enamored with the concept more than the beer itself. Nope — it’s a dream. I’m already thinking of Thanksgiving dinner pairings (too soon?), as this beer promises not to overwhelm most holiday foods. Give it a try, and let me know how you think it stacks up to its higher-ABV relatives.
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