There’s a misconception that the only people who mix beer and liquor are alcoholics and degenerates. I’m certainly not going to argue against that. What’s the point? In my experience, anyone who still uses the word “degenerate” as an insult is projecting some serious insecurities. Let them be miserable. The rest of us have drinking to do.
For thousands of years, hardworking people have turned to whiskey with a beer back as a cheap means of getting a strong buzz. However, the relationship between beer and spirits is more sophisticated and complex than society gives it credit for. From farm to kettle to bottle, the production, distribution, and consumption of beer and spirits can be very similar. Be it the ingredients or the aging techniques, ultimately our brewers and our distillers are both essentially crafting delicious means of getting grain alcohol into our bloodstreams.
WHISKEY AND BEER
Brewers don’t make beer; they use water, barley, and hops to make wort. Yeast consumes the simple sugars from the barley which results in byproducts of carbon dioxide and ethanol. Similarly, distillers definitely distill, but they must first make a mash of water and grains to satisfy their yeast. In the beginning, it’s all about the yeast. Once the fermentation process begins, distillers refer to the mash as “beer.” House Spirits Distillery takes their beer mash one step further by using an American ale yeast for fermentation.
If you join me on a BREWVANA Beers & Barrels tour, you’ll have the privilege of sampling House’s whiskey wash beer, as well as the resulting distilled and aged whiskey (among many other things).
One of the most common uses for spent bourbon barrels is to age scotch and other whiskies. However, as craft beer continues to grow all around the world, more and more distilleries are selling their barrels to breweries. Beer aged in whiskey barrels and wine puncheons is nothing new, but seems to be trending now like never before.
Barrel aging imparts a vast array of new flavors, esters, and aromatics onto a clean, steel or copper fermented beer. Barrel fermentation, however, is a whole other animal. Based on the Belgian Lambic-style tradition of open fermentation, brewers will forgo the typical steel fermentation with domesticated yeasts in favor of barrel fermentation with “wild” yeasts, like brettanomyces. While barrel aging typically produces a richer, more alcoholic tasting brew, barrel fermentation will yield a funkier, sour-tasting, puckery kind of beer.
WHY NOT BOTH?
Not only does beer taste good aged in a spirits barrel, beer tastes great with spirits themselves. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I personally prefer to use my beer as a chaser, but a proper tasting entails sipping the beer before sipping the spirit, and repeating (and repeating, and repeating). Regardless of how you go about it, you’ll notice the flavors of the beer changing as they dance with the notes from the spirit. You don’t solely want the flavors to match, rather, they should complement one another. The flavors of the beer need to hold up against the sheer strength of the highly alcoholic spirit. Typically, a higher ABV beer will work best. For example, dark, malty beers tend to pair well with the oaky sweetness of bourbon. After all, more malt usually means more alcohol. But don’t get too bogged down by the booze. There are other options. A tart sour ale or saison is delightful with a smoky single malt Scotch. Want something a little lighter? A crisp pilsner will provide a grainy grounding for the herbal aromatics of a botanical gin to flourish.
There are so many potential pairings, which is why research is always ongoing. If I seem biased towards whiskey, it’s because I am. Given the similarities between whiskey and beer, nothing pairs better with beer overall. And, the experts tend to agree with me. But, like I said, research is ongoing. Join me on a Beers & Barrels tour to conduct your own personal research.