One day in August 2017, Summit Brewing Co. accepted delivery of eight Jamaican rum barrels, because who would say no to rum barrels? Each 54 gallons in size, the rum barrels were shipped to our brewery within 14 days of being emptied at the Jamaican distillery they once called home. (They call this “fresh,” in the biz.)
One problem, though: The barrels weren’t actually empty when they got here. Each contained roughly 1.5 liters of 140-proof, cask-strength rum, and we had to figure out just what in the heck to do with it.
OK, we didn’t drink ALL the rum. We left some of it in the casks so it could blend with a few special beer releases, such as:
- Union Series #6: Imperial Russian Stout (coming late November 2017)
- Unchained #26: Westie 7th, a Belgian-Style Dark Ale (hitting draft lines and bottle shops right about now).
But wait! Before you rush out to buy a case of this rum-flavored magic sauce, please note that the beers above will be available in cans and bottles in their non-barrel-aged form. The barrel-aged variants will be served only on draft. For now. And why?
“Packaging wood and spirit-aged beers is a definite possibility for us down the road, whether it be cans or bottles. That’s what we aim to do,” says Head Brewer Damian McConn. “But first, we’re going to build this program slow and steady, and determine which beers work with which casks.”
“Eight barrels isn’t much volume,” McConn continues. “But it allows us to evaluate our supplier, evaluate the quality of the casks, and see how these spirit and wood flavors blend with our beers. Rather than buying a few trailers of wood barrels and praying it all works out, we’re going to start small, collect some data, and make sure it works.” In case you didn’t know, Damian is a methodical brewer.
In other words, we’re in the experimental phase. We expect the first batch of beers coming out of these fresh-filled barrels to boast big rum notes and a touch of timber. Later in 2018, we’ll age a different run of beers through the same barrels, and it’s likely those will feature more prominent timber notes than rum. After that, the barrels might become someone’s reclaimed furniture. They’re big and sturdy; they’d make a nice table.
This experiment, of course, is built on solid footing. McConn worked in a distillery years ago, before coming to Summit Brewing Co., and he’s excited to once again put that experience to use.
“Beer, of course, behaves differently than spirits,” he says. “But I’d like to develop this into a regular, consistent barrel-aging program. Perhaps we’ll work with brandy barrels in the future — maybe some tequila, scotch whiskey, and gin, too.” One type of barrel he’s ruled out, though, is U.S. bourbon. “U.S. brewers have been there and done that,” he says.
It’s well known that American craft brewers have been pushing the envelope with barrel-aged beers for years; a few notable brewers in the UK and Germany have been experimenting with spirit aging since the 1980s. And while Summit has dabbled in barrel-aging in the recent past (remember our Hob Knob Porter from 2016, and our super-limited Barrel-Aged Dark Infusion?), this investment signals a new direction for the brewery.
“Summit has its roots in traditional German lagers and British ales, and throughout history these beers were traditionally finished in wood barrels,” McConn says. “Stainless steel is a relatively new material, considering the long history of brewing. Getting into wood takes us back to the traditional roots of the brewers before us, and we can do it slowly and carefully while we focus on quality and flavor.”
THE BEER: A SNEAK PEEK
Your first opportunity to taste what we’re up to comes Monday, November 20, 2017, at the Dark Horse Bar & Eatery in St. Paul. Starting at 6 p.m., they’ll tap our Union Series 6: Imperial Russian Stout. Billed as the first beer in a series of barrel-aged releases available only at Dark Horse, this one’s been soaking up American oak and Jamaican rum notes for 90 days. It went in at 10.5% ABV, and we expect it to come out at 11.5% with notes dark fruit, roasted malt, and a hint of mocha coffee. OH, AND RUM, TOO.
Later in November, we’ll release the non-barrel-aged version of the Imperial Russian Stout in 4-packs of very limited 12-oz. bottles. So, GET THIS: you get to taste the barrel-aged stout at Dark Horse before the real deal comes out.
Coming up in February, Unchained 26: Westie 7th will be tapped at Dark Horse after aging on rum for 120 days. The non-barrel-aged version of this Belgian-Style Dark Ale is available right now on draft and in 6-packs of 12-oz. cans, so grab a sixer and start dreaming about what it might taste like once that rum heat kicks in.
Working with Dark Horse Bar & Eatery represents a great opportunity to partner with an established retailer to push interesting flavors in food and drink. “There’s a strong local connection there,” says McConn, “and Paddy [Whelan, owner of Dark Horse] is a strong supporter of Summit. He’s working hard to carve out a reputation for creativity and quality, and we’re happy to be part of it.”