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Front Page - Friday, December 24, 2021

Brewers rolling out the barrels for holidays

Tennessee beer makers go all-in for aging in alcohol-soaked casks

Head brewer Matt Simpson at Tennessee Brew Works sampling a batch that will be barreled at the end of the month. - Photos by Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

It’s late November, and Matt Simpson is brewing a Belgian-style beer at Nashville’s Tennessee Brew Works in preparation for the 2022 holiday sales season.

Once the beer is finished in the fermenter, it will go into whiskey barrels to absorb flavor and a bit of alcohol from the spirits that once were in the casks. The beer will stay in the barrels until it achieves the flavor that the brewer imagined, determined by the brewers sampling beer from the barrels on a regular basis.

Only when it has achieved the desired flavor is it bottled or kegged and ready for next year’s holiday revelers.

“Barrel-aged beers have been popular in the USA for decades,” says Simpson, remembering he tasted a porter and a stout in 1994 or 1995 at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver that had been aged in Jack Daniels and Jim Beam barrels.

“Both were good,” he recalls. “It was the talk of the event.”

This year in Tennessee, barrel-aged beers seem to be the talk of the town and a hot product at breweries across the state.

• Nashville’s New Heights Brewing lists three barrel-aged beers this season:

• Gobsmacked, a 14.7% English-style barleywine that spent 31 months in Jack Daniels barrels

• Old Ale Paso, a 12.1% offering that aged for 42 months in Knob Creek barrels

Bourbon Barrel Aged Navel Gazer, which spent 50 months in 1792 Ridgemont Reserve barrels. The aptly-named Navel Gazer, which already had a 10.1% punch, ended up at 13.9% and earned its acronym BANG (Barrel Aged Navel Gazer).

Jim Civis, one of the owners of Printshop Brewing in Knoxville, says his brewery has several high-alcohol offerings this season, including barrel-aged products.

“Right now we have six beers on at (more than) 7% ABV, which is honestly more than I intentionally shoot for,” he says.

Civis says he is getting ready to tap a batch of Pump Trolley wheat wine that was aged in barrels from Old Oak Bourbon of Colorado. The brewery menu warns that “this beer is pushing 9% ABV, so sip slowly and enjoy the ride.”

Civis points out the tap room menu also features Decimation Double IPA (10.1%) and Hedonistic Tendencies Double Imperial Stout (9.9%) and Something More Than Night Imperial Porter (8.2%).

“In general, our lineup tends toward lighter and lower ABV options in warmer months, and darker and higher ABV styles in the winter, Civis adds.

At Black Abbey Brewing in Nashville, owner/brewer Carl Meier says a special barrel-aged event has become an annual tradition.

“We have a large event every winter called ‘Eight More Beers of Winter’ in our taproom,” he explains. “We take all our regular beer off and replace them with barrel-aged versions, just for one day. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to warm up on a cold winter afternoon.”

Black Abbey in November released “Krampus Nacht” for the sixth consecutive season, a bock beer packaged with a bold cartoon of the sneering goat character from German folklore who accompanied St. Nicolas to deal with naughty children.

Tailgate Brewery, which operates three taprooms in Nashville and is opening another this month at the Nashville International Airport, is going big into barrel-aged this winter after doing two different rum barrel-aged beers last year.

Jeremy Ellman, a sales rep for Tailgate Brewery of Nashville, says the company has been buying a variety of liquor barrels for some time and hopes to introduce a new barrel-aged beer as often as every week during the winter.

Blackberry Farm Brewery Brewmaster Travis Hixon has taken the Maryville brewery’s flagship Classic Saison and aged it in a Foedor, which is a large, wooden vessel holding anywhere from 10 barrels to 40 barrels of beer, and gaining flavor with every use.

Hixon blended Foedor-aged Classic Saison with un-aged classic for a concoction with 6.5% ABV that won a bronze medal at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers this past November in Chicago.

Barrel-aged beers are generally packaged for retail in big bottles or reserved for taprooms only.

“A lot of people call this the whiskey season,” says Nic Donahue, portfolio sales manager for R.S. Lipman distributors in Nashville. “It is dreary, cold and darker, and moods can be darker, too. People want to be with friends. They want to be comforted.”

Christmas flavors

Current holiday season beers also emulate holiday flavors, spices and treats, including Lipman’s I Believe in Santa Milk and Cookies sweet stout.

Yazoo Brewing’s Goo Goo Brown Ale, emulates Standard Candy Company’s Goo Goo Clusters. Tailgate has put out a Barrel Aged Peanut Butter Milk Stout with cocoa nibs and marshmallows. Diskin offers Resolution Cinnamon Spice Cider.

And Chattanooga’s Naked River once again is offering Moon Pie Stout, brewed with bits of the lunchbox treat made at Chattanooga Bakery.

Beyond ABV, holiday season beer revels in sweet excess and culinary nostalgia.

This year’s comfort-rich Milk and Cookies edition of I Believe in Santa reached grocery shelves and barroom taps the last week of November.

Donahue adds this year’s Santa edition follows last year’s peppermint I Believe beer, which was well received … to a point.

“We learned that peppermint is divisive: some love it, and some can’t stand it,” Donahue says.

Sour beers also can be divisive. Fans of sour beers tend to be passionate, and those whose palates reject sour flavors tend to resist them.

Mayday Brewing of Murfreesboro is working on a black currant milkshake sour called Shimmy and Shake that should launch early in 2022.

Knoxville’s Printshop has just released Rooberry, a 5.2% strawberry rhubarb sour.

Dark season, dark beer

Ozzy Nelson of Mayday in Murfreesboro says customer preferences at his brewery are tending toward lagers, and not necessarily toward higher ABV beers.

“It seems like people like darker beers during the winter,” Nelson acknowledges. “I don’t think there is a percentage alcohol preference by season.”

Mayday recently released its Soul Dark Lager, a roasty European style dark.

“Our Soul Dark Lager is extremely popular in the winter, and our Amber Lager was very popular last year,” Nelson says.

Ken Redman, owner/brewer at Czann’s in West Nashville, has just released a Toasted Pecan Porter.

Porters are similar to stouts, but use a different sort of barley and tend to be a bit lighter-bodied than stouts.

Andrew Kamp, founder and former owner of Turtle Anarchy Brewing in Franklin and West Nashville, says natural instinct plays a role in seasonal beer preferences.

“Animals put on weight in winter,” notes Kamp, who was visiting recently from his new home in New Hampshire. “People are trying to be warm, eating and drinking what fills you up and warms you up.”

Planning for next year

The beer Simpson was brewing at Tennessee Brew Works might not be ready to go into the George Dickel barrels for another week or two, but that’s OK. That’s the 2022 batch. It will be resting in the barrels until it is transferred to bright tanks, crashed to 32 degrees, then bottled. The bottles get a wax coating around the crown and the neck.

It’s a festive look.

Mark Cook, a former editor, is co-owner of Hop House Tennessee Taps in Historic Downtown Franklin, which specializes in Tennessee-brewed beer.