Birth of a Porter

In an annual rite, brewers at Full Sail opened the barrels of aging Top Sail Imperial Porter yesterday. The beer had been gestating for a year (four days shy, actually, if you're a stickler for precision) in those barrels, and what came out was not only different from what went in--but different from what was in the next barrel over.

This year Full Sail used 18-year-old barrels of Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and rye from Jim Beam. The idea is to get a blend of flavors from different types of barrels. Last year, Full Sail used two types of barrels, and for a short time they had examples of all three variants on tap at the Pilsner Room--a blend of all barrels, and then one each that came from the two different types. (Here's my review from last year's iteration.) Yesterday, though, I got to sample the beer as it was coming directly out of the barrels, pre-blend (pic here of the blogger in action). This is slightly different because, while the different types of barrels contribute a character of their own, each barrel also has its own character.

Barrel-aging is an organic process. The brewer's work has been completed by the time the beer goes into the casks, and what happens next is uncontrolled biochemistry. The beer pulls the liquor from the wood and it blends together, adding alcohol and aromatic compounds. Oxygen slowly seeps through the grain of the wood and interacts with the beer. The various compounds within the beer continue to evolve and interact. Each barrel becomes a singular ecosystem for these changes, and at the end of a year, each one has a unique character. Cracking those barrels open after a year is a fascinating study in biology.

In general, the Maker's Mark barrels produced a decadent beer--extremely rich and loaded with chocolate and cherry flavors. The Wild Turkey was, as you might expect, hotter and thinner, with a sharp edge. The rye barrels were my faves overall--they were earthier, spicier, and drier. Those were just broad contours, though. Barrel to barrel, flavors varied quite a bit. Some were more aromatic, some flatter, some richer, and some, sadly, had gone wrong. One was full of aldehydes and a vicious higher alcohol and one had the beginnings of what I argued might be a tasty funk (though there was a troubling solvent note). Both got dumped, and I captured the tragedy with my trusty camera.

The beer is headed for a tank where it will rest and settle for a period before bottling and it should be available next month. Meanwhile, the next batch of bourbon casks are headed to Hood River, awaiting the 2013 vintage of Black Gold Imperial Stout. They've been doing this every year since 1998, and now they alternate the stout and porter every other year. I will be most fascinated to see how the final blend tastes.