For Craft Brewers and Jameson, Barrels Are a Golden Ticket

Jameson’s “Drinking Buddies” barrel-share program will give five American craft brewers a rare chance at barrel aging with the world’s premiere Irish whiskey.

Class was in session on the top floor of Jameson‘s Whiskey Academy building. The classroom had all the normal trappings — chalkboards, textbooks, informational posters — plus a few thousand bottles of liquor on shelves, filled with liquids of many hues and labelled in the language of whiskey: first-use, second-use, sherry, American oak, red wine. Ten or so American craft beer brewers sat in pupil’s chairs and listened to Jameson Master Distiller Brian Nation as he stood before the chalkboard and explained where Jameson sources its barley. One brewer asked where exactly the barley comes from (answer: farms within 100 miles from the Midleton Distillery, outside Cork); another wanted to know what exactly happens to the mash once it’s been drained and filtered (answer: fed to lucky local cows).

It was all part and parcel of Jameson’s Drinking Buddies program, which links American Craft brewing and the flagship Irish whiskey producer through a barrel-sharing program. In its second official year, Drinking Buddies has expanded from sending Jameson barrels to one brewery (last year, it was Brooklyn-based Kelso) to five breweries — Captain Lawrence in Elmsford, New York, Deep Ellum in Dallas, Texas, Great Divide in Denver, Colorado, Angel City in Los Angeles, and Hilliard’s in Seattle, Washington — each receiving six barrels from Jameson in which to age whatever beer they choose to create.

The program is happening at an important moment for barrel aging in craft beer. Though beer was for hundreds of years held and fermented in wooden barrels, modern barrel aging has boomed among both drinkers and brewers since the early 2000s, producing some of the most beloved, sought-after and expensive beers to date. When the category was introduced at the Great American Beer Festival in 2002, there were just 26 entrants; by 2012 that number had grown to 116; in 2015, the category was split in four (wood and barrel aged, strong beer, strong stout, sour beer) to account for increased interest and competition. Six of the top 10 beers on Beeradvocate.com, the community’s go-to rating source, are barrel aged, all in either bourbon or rye whiskey barrels.

It’s all followed a straightforward formula, first established by breweries like Goose Island, Firestone Walker and New Belgium in the 1990s: beer that’s brewed and then aged in barrels previously holding liquor (most popularly, bourbon) gains complexity from the previous resident’s leftover flavor particles, and from the wood of the barrels themselves.

When aging beer in first-use bourbon barrels, Browning said, “you’ll get huge vanilla overtones. But with Scotch [and Irish] whiskey distilling, that whiskey will develop this very nice soft vanilla, and overall [the resulting beer] will be more delicate in flavor.”

“As a brewer, I personally like it because it can be unpredictable. It’s like solving a puzzle you don’t know the answer to right away,” said Molly Browning, who runs Brooklyn Brewery’s barrel-aging program out of its Navy Yard warehouse, which can house up to 2,000 barrels. For the drinker, barrel-aged beers add complexities and big flavors that, when done well, can be downright shocking. “It’s wonderfully complex. You feel like you’re getting to know the beer better,” she said. Barrel aging gives brewers the ability to induce tannins, sour notes and other flavors generally associated only with wine and spirits, and has been credited with widening craft beer drinkers’ sensibilities and reaching consumers who might not have been beer drinkers otherwise. “The complexities there with a very well-made beer are just staggering,” Browning concluded.

But pair that popularity with craft beer’s surge in the US — 1.5 new breweries opened every day in 2014 — and you have the makings of a barrel shortage. Barrel prices have climbed 10 to 20 percent in recent years, says Browning, and breweries are most often forced to get barrels through brokers. The lack of direct access to distilleries and barrels has forced breweries to develop programs that focus entirely on barrel sourcing and to expand operations to include barrel aging warehouses; smaller breweries, with fewer resources, are being shut out.

This dearth, combined with a flooding of the market in bourbon barrel-aged styles, has led to brewery experimentation with other barrels, like tequila, wine, mezcal, rum and rye. But beer aged in whiskey barrels from Scotch and Irish distilleries has been virtually nonexistent, due in no small part to the fact that distilleries tend to jealously guard their use.

That’s unfortunate for brewers. Those whiskey barrels also have a different effect on the beer because they’ve been used to age bourbon once and then reused. When aging beer in first-use bourbon barrels, Browning said, “you’ll get huge vanilla overtones. Because of the single use of that barrel, it’s more pungent and powerful. But with Scotch [and Irish] whiskey distilling, that whiskey will develop this very nice soft vanilla, and overall [the resulting beer] will be more delicate in flavor.”

Six of the top 10 beers on Beeradvocate.com, the community’s go-to rating source, are barrel aged.

All of this means that the 30 barrels lent by Jameson, one of the biggest names in Irish whiskey and whiskey in general, are essentially a golden ticket for these five breweries.

The growth of the barrel-sharing program — from secretly lending barrels to local Cork brewery Franciscan Well in 2012 to launching a major US campaign — has also created a major marketing moment for Jameson. The American brewers in this year’s program had been brought to Jameson’s Midleton Distillery in large part to shoot a promotional video; last year’s video about Jameson’s collaboration with Kelso Brewery has over 260,000 views on YouTube. “Over half the time Jameson is being consumed in neat form, it’s alongside a beer. And most of the time, that beer is a craft beer,” said Patrick Caulfield, Senior Brand Manager for Jameson in the US. “It made a lot of sense to do this with the American brewer, because of this whole idea of us giving back and really driving a connection with neighborhoods that are important to us.” Locations near these city centers (New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver) were a major aspect of brewery selection. The release of each brewery’s Jameson-aged beer will be in the style of a neighborhood party, open to “bartenders, musicians, the kind of people who are synonymous with our industries,” said Caulfield. With only six barrels at the brewers’ disposal, though, local craft beer fans will be hard pressed to get their hands on the specialty brews.

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Back home at their breweries, the American brewers have taken the creative aspect of the program to heart. At Deep Ellum in Texas, Head Brewer Jeremy Hunt and crew are brewing a sweet stout that sounds like the perfect dessert — a reaction to the Irish-style dry stout, brewed with American hops, Texas pecans and flake barley. (The final ingredient is an homage to Jameson’s key ingredient, unmalted barley.) The barrels are “kind of an American thing that’s gone to Ireland and come back to the States,” he said. “So we figured we’d put our own little Texas stamp on it too.”

Angel City Brewing, out of Los Angeles, is making a beastly 14% ABV Imperial Red Ale, and has added sherry-seasoned French oak spirals to their Jameson barrels that they believe mimic the sherry-barreled percentage of Jameson’s blend. Captain Lawrence, too, is making a “big, meaty” Imperial Red that they hope will stand up to the bold whiskey flavors imparted by their barrels. Great Divide decided to brew an 8% ABV dark lager, in hopes that the subtleties of the beer will highlight the barrel. “If you had a very complicated beer,” he said, “the barrel’s flavors might get lost in it.”

Hilliard’s in Seattle has the most bold creation on its hands: a kettle-soured saison it hopes will turn into a version of a whiskey sour cocktail once it’s been aged in the Jameson barrels. “It’s kind of a weird beer, but like everything at Hilliard’s, if we’re not pushing the boundaries a little bit, we get a little complacent, and that’s not good,” said Head Brewer Todd Garrett.

Whether the program will lead a shift toward more international barrel-sharing programs — thus easing the barrel-acquisition burden within the American craft beer market and widening the range of barrel-aged beer selections for brewers — remains to be seen. The efforts of the five American brewers in the Drinking Buddies program should serve as a fine argument. As did something else: a trip out to Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork on the program’s last day, where, as evening fell, locals gathered to drink, eat, and play Pictionary en masse. A bearded brewer was labeling bottles full of pitch-black beer emblazoned proudly with the distinction of being “Aged in Jameson Barrels”. Franciscan Well has been making the beer annually since their first batch in 2012, the brewer said, and it had become extremely popular in the community. He was convinced to hand a few out early on this night; and the courtyard, seen over the rim of a pitch-black stout that smelled of marshmallows dipped in sweet whiskey and then toasted, was a convincing view.

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