Style: Wild fermentation ale / ABV: 8.1 percent
Paul Arney had no ambitious goals for Wheat Jr. The founder of Ale Apothecary simply didn't want a load of fermentable sugars to go to waste.
That thrifty mindset is what led Arney to revive a centuries-old method that allowed beer makers to squeeze as much as they could from a single grain bill. It's also given the brewery, located on Arney's property on the outskirts of Bend, the unique honor of producing two separate beers from the same base that have made it onto our top 10 list.
Wheat Jr. is what is known as a second-runnings beer—you can think of it like a pot of coffee brewed with the grounds from a previous batch. While that might sound like a penny-pinching technique lifted from an episode of Extreme Cheapskates, the wheat and barley leftover from the mash—particularly grains for a higher-alcohol beer—aren't as spent as, say, a damp filter of used Folgers.
That was the case with Ale Apothecary's Red Echo, a burly wheat wine cooked up by brewer Connor Currie that weighed in at nearly 11 percent ABV. Going into that project knowing there would be plenty of residual sugars following the first runnings, there was never any question they would steep the grains again.
"Honestly, we didn't give it a heck of a lot of thought," Arney recalls. "We're spending a lot of money on these raw materials. Let's try and get the most out of them and see what happens."
It would be easy to assume the so-called small beer would result in a final product nearly identical to Red Echo, only slightly weaker. But the little sibling has a wildly different personality that took four years to coax out. When the original wheat wine was named WW's fourth-favorite beer of 2018, Arney was still trying to subdue the intense astringency of the tannins extracted from the barley husks in Wheat Jr. by letting it age.
"At the beginning, I wouldn't say 'unpalatable,' but it wasn't what I would call pleasant," says Arney. "If we tried to serve that beer initially, it would've been like chewing on a banana peel."
Last year, when Arney and Currie sampled liquid from their barrels to evaluate progress, they realized Wheat Jr. had turned a corner. The tannic quality tamed with time, creating a mouthfeel that was no longer coarse and chewy, but rich and velvety. With its layers of earth and funk gliding across the tongue, it's the silkiest beer we've had all year—the sensation of slipping into a vintage leather jacket that becomes a supple second skin. Wheat Jr. is not what Arney expected from frugal thinking, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Our hope is that these beers will lead us places we'd been unable to get to if we had planned the whole thing out," Arney says. "The way I have set up this brewery is like traveling without a destination."