I’m a big fan of the new direction in wine-beer hybrids, in one tiny circle called oenobeers. So while writing a few stories about these beers co-fermented with wine grapes, a few examples from New Braunfels, TX-based New Braunfels Brewing were shipped my way. One beer, Very Seldom Naughty, employed Chenin Blanc and Viognier pomace and was aged in white wine barrels yet still was stashed in the cellar for later enjoyment.
Now IS later. And just as no wine before its time, it seems two years is the right amount of time to lay down this release. When I open these, I always offer Wifey a taste (and her own glass if she likes it). And since she tends to not pull her weight when the bottle contains a big, bourbony behemoth of a beer, I wish that tart, fruity mixed-culture beers like this would roll into her wheelhouse, but she deemed it “too funky.” Which is to show how subjective this stuff is because I found this beer quite approachable. In the vein of a sour witbier or grapey gose, it had moderate tannins and effervescence and generally tasted like something both champagne and lambic fans would both enjoy.
If you’ve never had anything from this Central Texas brewery, this is as good a place as any to start exploring. Oh sure, they’ve got some sour Pickle Juice beers, but if in a contest of funky vs approachability, my money’s on Very Seldom Naughty over the brine.
The third beer is the very definition of a cellar-dweller. I’ve never once bought an entire case of a single beer. Except for one time I did and dropped, if I recall, $300 on it. No less.
Why’d I buy a case of Hair of the Dog‘s Cherry Adam From the Wood (Ftw)? It was a favor to a guy I very much doubt is reading this, but a guy who I felt I owed a beer-debt to when he’d provided a memorable (and simultaneously immemorable) experience in Kentucky a few years earlier). By that point in late 2011, I’d been living in Portland, OR for a couple years, attended my first FredFest, and fell in love with brewmaster Alan Sprints’ FTW series. These weren’t sour beers and they weren’t using every obscure fruit under the sun. They were the same strong ales HotD had become known for–beers with big personalities named for (often-four-letter)-named people who’d had a big impact on Sprints. Fred. Otto. Not that the pale ale named for his gramma Ruth was a Belgian Strong Ale, but as someone who had a Grandma Ruth myself, I could relate to his naming convention.
So I went to the dock sale early one morning, I don’t recall much of a line having formed, and dutifully bought the case for my friend. And a year later, when that case was still fully in tact in a dark, cool, crawlspace beneath our basement stairs, I asked the Kentuckian about his plans to procure his favor, which I wasn’t even going to charge interest or the increased market value since this one-of-100 case had developed quite a cult following. CAFTW became the ISO-acronym around beertrader sites.
That email thread was quite short. And fruitless. And I began treating myself to the occasional 12-ounce bottle of CAFTW.
Soon, I started popping ’em at bottle-shares. It made frequent appearance at my themed cellar-clearings, like all cherry beers. (Note: I did start an entire beer festival devoted specifically to barrel-aged sour cherry beers called Kriekfest, so you can believe I’ve gottta lotta cherry beers in my stash.)
But 24 bottles is a lot. And I still had 5 left at the start of this isolation. Not that ISO any more lation at this moment!
When I popped the top, a semi-fart of autolysed air leaked out. The liquid is less bubbly than Mike Pence on Ash Wednesday. But at the cost of roll of March-2020 Charmin per bottle, I wasn’t going to drink a fair amount without trying to pixilate out all but the silver lining: Nice, bourbon-soaked black cherry flavor.
The next day, I gave a bottle to a friend with the suggestion that he try to re-carb it first and with some life breathed into it, I think Adam could make it through another eve. But that still leaves me with 3 bottles.
Yesterday’s bottle (Fifty/Fifty Eclipse) wasn’t the only bottle I’m still holding dating back to 2009. This is from Placentia, CA’s The bRUEry and the name, Papier, kicked off its ongoing series of bbl-aged anniversary beers named for traditional anniversary gifts (but in French, like the name Rue itself).
I’d discovered The Bruery right after they debuted when my friend and roommate at that year’s Great American Beer Festival, Jesse Friedman (who was still a couple years from co-founding Almanac Brewing), dragged my then-girlfriend and I to their booth on the GABF floor. Patrick Rue and his wife, Rachel, tasted me on their offerings which were pretty mind-blowing at the time. I mean, Black Orchard, a Belgian White Ale but black!? And a Belgian trippel with Thai basil in it!? Not to mention, a saison. Saison was the 2014 gose of 2008. Oh yeah, I also tried a beer the brewery would soon be bottling, a near-20% ABV bourbon-aged imperial stout called Black Tuesday.
Papier is the only beer in the ongoing anniversary series that isn’t made in the solera method (of blending newer stock into the older). Chiefly, because there was nothing older with which to blend (although it is a blend of 25% bourbon-aged Old Ale and 75% “oak-aged” though I’m not clear on whether that means old ale aged on oak chips or in some non-bourbon cask or whatnot. Papier, at this point, is an apt word since, yes, the 14.5-percenter has gone a bit papery. This is, after all, the 11th anniversary of this 1st anniversary beer and oxidation–even in a wax-dipped bottle–will do that. Still, the malt makes for a decadent after-supper sipper and the booziness does likewise. Once again, I was unable to polish off the bottle by myself and the chalice I’d rested on my nightstand perfumed my dreams. It literally made me wake up and think about last night’s beer first thing this morning.
The journey of The Bruery over the last dozen years has been, as Paul McCartney put it, a long and winding road. First the Rue family tree grew by a daughter. Then the Bruery family started selling sour beers under the Bruery Terreux label, and then non-Belgian, non-aged beers under the Offshoot imprint. Then, of course, the Rues sold a majority share to private equity, which enabled them to move from Orange County to Grape Country, Napa, where they just launched Erosion Wines. Pretty bad time to start a new business, but hey, if anything’s gonna get us through this pandemic and quarantine, it’s wine and beer.
Of course, seeing as Bruery bottles occupied an entire shelf in the beer cooler, this means I’ve got 11 more including my now-last Papier, Cuir-Bois (2nd-5th anniversaries), a couple from the 12 Days of Christmas series dating back to ’09’s Two Turtle Doves, several sours, and, of course, some variants of Black Tuesday. If the quarantine warrants a second 19-day cellar-clearning (and sadly it probably will) look for The Bruery to be featured again.
So I raised this glass to that nice young couple who branched out from beers that were the norm of the mid-aughts craft beer scene and started to make the kinds of beers they wanted to see and became quite influential in the process.
Projects. If there’s one good thing that comes out of this Novel Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is that it’ll be remembered as that time we all GSD. All the home repairs we always vowed to do “someday,” the books we’d bought but never read, the bingeable shows we meant to watch, the time we wished we had to spend with our kids, the longer walks we pretended were around the corner, now is the moment we’re actually Getting Shit Done.
One of those, for me and many a beer geek I know, is finally drinking down our beer cellars.
The bottles we’d held off for some celebration that didn’t seem to come (5 or 9 years back). The bottles that got pushed to the back and since out of sight means out of mind we’d just forgotten we even had that amazing looking thing. Whatever the reason, it’s dusty and forlorn and yet it may be brilliant still so since if there’s another thing a pandemic is good for it’s reminding us that we’re here for a good time, not a long time.
I kinda doubt this extended isolation will only last 19 days, but in honor of this COVID-19 virus that’s stopped the Earth from spinning, I’m gonna drink/document 19. Starting with this purple-wax-dipped bottle of Eclipse Imperial Stout from 2009, emanating from Fifty/Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA in Lake Tahoe.
I bought this while living not too far from there in San Francisco, probably at City Beer Store. Furthermore, I never would’ve bought it if it wasn’t for something my then-girlfriend did for me just a year earlier. She busted through my self-imposed price ceiling on any given bottle of beer which had been $20. But, while in Chicago on my cross-country book tour promoting Red, White, & Brew, which was her last stop before flying home, we went to an awesome wine shop across the street from Barbara’s Books where I’d done my reading/signing and she bought me a bottle of Naughty Goose, a bourbon-aged imperial brown ale from the local, independent brewery Goose Island. It cost her $30. Outrageous. And also, permission to move my own cap up that high when necessitated. I don’t recall for sure, but I think I dropped $25 for this 22oz’er in ’09 and kept buying a couple bottles each year until the price tags reached over $30. And now, there are so many such barrel-aged beers in my cellar that I’ve stopped amassing them altogether. I noticed that Fifty/Fifty switched from bombers to 500ml packages, which is smart. I confess in advance I didn’t even finish this bottle, but think I got 16 ounces down.
And this barrel-aged number from Fifty/Fifty felt so necessary. In an era when next to no craft breweries had yet developed a barrel program of any note, Eclipse had debuted a couple years earlier. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’d get to write about it a year later and, more interestingly, the man-behind-the-scenes who made it possible. This profile of Tom Griffin, a man known to select brewmasters from coast-to-coast as The Barrel Guy, remains one of my most favorite stories I’ve ever written. (And frankly, since Draft Mag is long gone, I can’t believe the link still works.)
So Eclipse is in the pantheon of bourbon barrel aged beers but back in 2009, it was the first year the brewery even released various versions and used the wax color to denote which specific barrels were used for maturation. There were 3 in ’09. Last year they released 17 editions and, being ’19, one’s aged in Yaegermeister barrels while one’s a pastry stout emulating banana fritters. But this bottle I’d saved to kick off the 2020 Quarantine was aged in Elijah Craig barrels, one of my fave bourbons.
Either despite or because of the 11 years that have come and gone, the beer was a little languid but a lot lovely. Viscous and semi-flat, it oozed with a richness messieurs Penzzoil and Valvoline could only dream of and I do mean the sense of being rich, not of being crude and oily. Lava cake, Little League catcher’s mitt, and damp tobacco leaves rounded out the heady brew. It cast a shadow over most such BBA-RIS libations I’ve had in its wake.
I’m now on the lookout for some sub-$20, 500-ml variants of Eclipse 2020… if we’re around by the time it comes out.
Thinking back, I honestly don’t remember how Tom Griffin, aka the Barrel Guy, even landed on my radar. He flies under almost every radar. This one guy–he doesn’t like the term barrel broker because spent barrels are more like a canvas to him than a commodity–helped shift the direction of the craft beer business in the 21st century but no one outside the brewers really knew about it. Certainly no one had written about him. Nor was he trying to be written about. I think it was an off-handed comment by Matt Brynildson, Firestone-Walker’s brewmaster, where I casually heard his name and some time later that set me off looking for him, but he doesn’t have a website or anything. That’s why how we first met face to face is part of this story, my first for DRAFT Magazine (vol. 5.4, July, 2010). Of course, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, but this remains one of my favorite stories.
Cheers to Tom, wherever he may presently be driving.