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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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Clark County distillers, brewers, coffee roasters learn to love oak barrels

Aging beverages in wood -- especially when charred or toasted -- adds flavor

4 Photos
Barrels are used by distillers, sure, but also coffee and beer makers to impart complex flavors to their products.
Barrels are used by distillers, sure, but also coffee and beer makers to impart complex flavors to their products. (Rachel Pinsky) Photo Gallery

Distillers have aged spirits in oak barrels since the 1800s. Early alcohol makers discovered that, over time, the chemical components in wood add flavors like toffee, brown sugar, caramel and spice to spirits. Then they figured out that charring and toasting the barrels adds even more flavor.

In Clark County, not only are distillers experimenting with barrel aging; beer and coffee makers are as well.

Barrel-aged spirits

Quartz Mountain Distillers (4601 N.E. 78th St., Suite 220, Vancouver; 360-839-2090) uses the classic technique of aging spirits in American oak for its private reserve bourbon. The barrel manufacturer toasts and then chars the barrel according to the spirit maker’s specifications. For whiskey to be classified as bourbon in the United States, it must be aged in new oak barrels after fermentation.

“The barrel breathes. It inhales spirits and pulls them through the char and toast, then exhales, transferring the char and toast to the spirit,” said Darin Kyle, co-owner of Quartz Mountain Distillers.

The distillery offers several ways for customers to learn about this process. Customers can join the Founders Club by purchasing a 10-liter ($695) or 20-liter barrel ($1,395).

As part of this program, members spend a day at the distillery creating a mash and starting the fermentation process. Once members’ dedicated mash is fermented, they participate in the distilling process, and then fill their own dedicated barrel for aging. The barrel remains at the distillery for about 12 months before it’s ready to harvest, bottle and label. Members sample the spirit periodically until it reaches a flavor they desire. A 10-liter barrel yields 10 bottles, and a 20-liter barrel yields 20 bottles.

Kyle said the Founders Club has been a “huge hit.”

“It’s a good opportunity to experience what’s going on with their spirit,” Kyle said.

Quartz Mountain Distillers also offers a home aging kit ($149.95) with a 2-liter oak barrel as well as two 750-milliliter bottles of unaged corn whiskey. The instructions included with the kit explain the process of preparing the barrel and then aging and extracting the spirit. Eighty days in this 2-liter barrel gives the spirit the same complex flavors it would absorb in a 53-gallon barrel in one year.

Barrel-aged beer

At Fortside Brewing (2200 N.E. Andresen Road, Vancouver; 360-524-4692), head brewer Paul Thurston uses barrel aging at various parts of the brewing process to flavor the beer. Brewers don’t need to follow the strict rules imposed on distillers, which gives them freedom to experiment.

Thurston makes two types of barrel-aged brews.

The first type are darker beers that are aged in bourbon barrels. These charred American oak barrels come dripping with the bourbon that had previously rested in them. Fortside’s current offerings include a 2022 bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout called the Night King ($8 for 12 ounces) on tap that sat in the barrel for one year. This stout has cocoa and dark-chocolate flavors melded with notes of toasted marshmallow and a warming boozy finish.

Thurston also uses a variety of barrel-aging techniques to create Belgian- and French-inspired sour beers. These sours can be barrel aged (fermented in the stainless-steel casks and then placed in a barrel) or barrel fermented (fermented in one barrel and then aged in another barrel). They sit in the barrel for two to four years so the slow-acting microorganisms in the beer and wood can reach peak flavors. The aged beer is blended with a younger brew to create the final product.

Fortside currently has three of these types of beers: Palisade 5 ($7 for 12 ounces), a barrel-fermented fresh hop farmhouse ale; Fuzzy Perzik ($8 for 12 ounces), a barrel-aged blended mixed culture sour; and Lively Oak ($6.50 for 12 ounces), a barrel-aged tart old ale.

Barrel-aged coffee

Coffee roasters have taken a very different approach to using residual alcohol from oak barrels. I first tried a whiskey-barrel-aged cold brew at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle a couple years ago. It was served in a squat glass, sweetened with vanilla bean syrup and chilled with a large ice cube. The caramel smell of an aged whiskey mixed with the cocoa notes of a chocolate bar perfumed the glass.

I was surprised to discover that barrel aging coffee starts by placing unroasted green coffee beans in a barrel that previously aged spirits. The residual liquids are soaked up by the coffee beans as they rest in the barrel. This can take days or weeks.

The booze-soaked beans are poured out of the barrel and then roasted. The roasting process burns off the alcohol while concentrating flavors from the whiskey. Properly roasted beans take on notes of brown sugar, caramel, coconut and vanilla.

Relevant Coffee (1703 Main St., Vancouver; 971-319-5773) soaks unroasted coffee beans in Bull Run’s 8-year-old single malt whiskey to create its specialty whiskey-washed beans. After the beans absorb the whiskey, they’re carefully roasted to bring out optimal flavor. This specialty bean is sold in small lots of 8-ounce bags ($18) or cold brewed and canned ($5 for 12 ounces).

I recently visited the lab behind the Uptown Village coffee shop, where owners Mitch Montgomery and Brian Clemens set up a cupping of their brewed whiskey-washed beans and served the cold-brew version in a squat glass. The hot cupped coffee had a chocolate and coconut flavor with a bit of caramel finish. The beans truly shined when cold brewed. The cold-extraction process pulls out the chocolate, coffee and brown sugar scents that make the first sniff of this drink extraordinary.

This isn’t something to just slurp down on the way to work or on a quick break, but a luxurious sipper that should be served in a wide glass to allow all the aromas to flow into the nose.

Barrel aging isn’t a new technique. Nonetheless, drink producers are stretching it to create interesting flavors and fragrances for curious customers.

Rachel Pinsky: couveeats@gmail.com