Brewers Go Big With Barrel-Aged Gems
Ask Deschutes Brewery founder Gary Fish when he thinks the Central Oregon beer bubble might burst, and he responds with a question himself.
“Go ask Howard Schultz when that coffee thing’s going to end,” says Fish, referring to the Starbucks mogul.
“It’s not about us, it’s about the consumer looking for that individual experience.”
That experience for Deschutes Brewery fans extends well beyond massive production plant in Bend and cozy downtown pub to a nondescript building miles from both.
Inside, nearly 2,000 wooden barrels are stacked to the ceiling and filled with Deschutes’ “Reserve Series” of beers.
This isn’t beer like you think beer should be.
It’s beer like “Mirror Mirror,” a unique, award-winning barley wine aged 10 months in barrels that once held Oregon Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Malbec wines. And “Big Red,” a double Cinder Cone Red aged in Cabernet and Syrah barrels.
The stacks include other limited edition, world-class brews that, once bottled, spark a “drink it now or let it age” debate among beer connoisseurs worldwide, including “The Abyss,” which has been named recently the World’s Best Porter/Stout. These are the kind of beers people blog about. The kind of beers that come in wax-dipped 22-ounce bottles that people give as holiday gifts. The kind served in snifters to cherish and enjoy, not chug.
Barrel-aging beer by no means started in Bend. It dates back hundreds of years. But in the relatively new craft beer world, Central Oregon breweries may have perfected it.
Along with Deschutes’ multiple award-winners, The Bend Brewing Company recently won a gold medal for its “Lovely Cherry Baltic Porter:” at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters offers the “Whiskey Barrel Big Bad Sisters Coffee Stout” while people rave about 10 Barrel Brewing Company’s “The Falconator.”
Those beers and many more are featured each year during the Little Woody Barrel-Aged Brew and Whiskey Festival that draws thousands to Bend for a taste of the newest, yet slightly aged creations.
“American brewers are continuing to explore what beer can be,” Fish said at a recent re-launch of Mirror Mirror, last released in 2009. “It now can be many things.”
Swirling the last drops of Mirror Mirror in his glass like a fine wine, Fish says his brewmasters are constantly trying to push the envelope, but always with the beer drinker, not the company’s ego, in mind.
“All we’re doing is trying to keep up with the consumer,” he says nodding over to Ryan Schmiege, an assistant brewmaster who helped with this current batch of liquid gold.
A quick walk through the stacks of barrels reveals the future of their contents. Some of Bend’s – and the world’s – best beers are years from being bottled. The contents of some of the unmarked barrels might never make it beyond this warehouse.
“We try weird stuff all the time the consumer will never see,” Fish says with a laugh.
Our loss for sure.