Behind every great barrel, there's a hustle.
Sure, if you're a brewer with some cash, you can probably get your hands on an industrial bourbon barrel from Indiana and throw some syrupy stout down it till it smells like a distillery. But at Fat Head's, outgoing brewer Mike Hunsaker likes to get a little weirder.
"You can do bourbon all the time if you want; it has mass appeal," he says. "We like looking for the smaller stuff you can't quite get so easily."
Stuff like the Mellow Corn barrels he and his barrel pro Mark Poffenberger were able to procure for their coffee stout, the Manhattan-cocktail barrels Hunsaker wheedled from High West Distillery, and the Madeira barrels home to his Owen's Resurrection barleywine.
But especially stuff like the ultra-rare Nocino barrel Hunsaker got hold of at the end of 2015.
At first, Hunsaker is reluctant to say where the barrel even came from. After all, it was the only one of its kind in Oregon that year—once home to an obscure, dark, sticky liqueur made from unripe green walnuts that's rarely made outside its home region in northern Italy.
At Fat Head's Portland brewery, Hunsaker is rightly known as a master of light and hoppy beers. His Semper FiPA was blind-voted the best IPA in Portland by a panel of beer insiders, and his Built for Speed IPA might even be better than that.
But the silly-named beer Hunsaker made with that obscure barrel—Nocino-barrel-aged Pimp My Sleigh—didn't just turn out to be Hunsaker's favorite barrel-aged beer he's ever made, it was one of the finest, deepest and most complex beers made in Oregon this year.
On the one hand a 10.5-percent-ABV bomb of deep swirling flavors, the beer is buoyed up by rich nuttiness that rounds out across your palate so gently you hardly notice your mouth is still hanging open three seconds after you sip it.
The beer begins as an already deep and fruity Belgian strong dark called Sorcerer—a recipe from Ohio Fat Head's brewmaster Matt Cole that uses two different Belgian yeasts whose flavors entwine like a DNA helix, plus a grip of specialty malts imparting layer after layer of caramel over low-and-slow fermentation.
"Most beers are five days," says Hunsaker. "This is a two-week fermentation."
To turn that long-fermented Sorcerer into Pimp My Sleigh, a 10-barrel batch of that already-rich base beer is tricked out with a mere 40 grams of anise in the whirlpool.
"It adds a huge layer of depth," Hunsaker says, "I think it accents some of the dark fruit flavors—the earthiness of licorice goes underneath and adds that candied plum flavor."
But the beer still didn't reach its full potential until Hunsaker and Poffenberger were touring around the Yamhill County estate of distiller Ransom Spirits, whose Old Tom gin barrels Hunsaker loves.
The walnut hooch is just one of many components Ransom distills as a component for its vermouth—it's not even available commercially as a separate liqueur. The second the brewers tasted it, they knew exactly what they wanted to do with it.
"The Nocino was screaming for that Belgian Dark," Hunsaker says. "It's not overly sweet, but it's got that dark fruit; that nuttiness along with the liqueur flavor would be great. There are times you just know."
It's a rare barrel-aged beer that's perfect when you tap it, Hunsaker says. Typically, he'd test it and then let it sit in the barrels for a while, maybe letting it get too intense, then blending it back with the base beer to smooth it out.
This was a unicorn—perfect at the exact moment they tried it.
"We tasted it in the barrel, and we said, 'Oh, that's it! That's it now!'" Hunsaker remembers. "That was such a sweet spot. We pulled it out, kegged it off, tasted it a few more times and said, 'I don't want to touch it.'"
Like all of Fat Head's barrel-aged beers, that Pimp My Sleigh is not overwhelmed with liquor heat. It's an accent, not something that takes over the beer.
Hunsaker's final day at Fat Head's Brewing was Jan. 31. He's headed north to Camas, Wash., to start his own punk-metal brewery, Grains of Wrath. He says he hopes to get hold of another one of those Nocino barrels for the new brewery—something he worries he may have just screwed up by revealing its source.
"I'm giving Ransom a call right after we stop talking," he says. "I've got to lock that down before somebody else snaps it up."
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