Last year we told you about the annual release of Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout. The Chicago-based brewery is just one of dozens in that region adept at aging robust beers with deep flavors in whiskey barrels, to exceptional effect. But why should the Midwest have all the fun?
Here on the West Coast, a formidable barrel-aged scene is maturing. And, in fact, many of California's proudest casked creations — some with ABVs hovering in the double digits — are produced within a 200 mile radius of Los Angeles. Loud and in the way, these barrel-aged beauties are becoming impossible to ignore. Bottles of the aforementioned Bourbon County Stout have long disappeared from shelves, but the following locally-based alternatives are yours for the taking. Here are ten standouts to get your oak-tinged fix:
10. Loakal Red, The Bruery
This hoppy red ale might not be the best barrel-aged beverage to come out of Placentia's world-class brewery, The Bruery, but it is far and away the easiest to procure. It's also far more interesting than many beer geeks are willing to admit. Bitter notes of Centennial hops work surprisingly well in contrast to new American oak. You won't get any chewiness or boozy heat here. What you will get is a subtle tannic finish to abet a slightly sweet malt bill. And you'll also get it in your hands — which is more than can be said about most other aged Bruery releases.
9. Darkstar November, Bottle Logic Brewing
Anaheim-based Bottle Logic Brewing has made a name for themselves over the last year with a slew of inventive one-offs. But they brushed up against cult status when they released Darkstar November late last year. A creamy, hard-hitting imperial Russian stout brewed with rye and molasses, it finds its natural soulmate in bourbon-soaked wood. Even with its hefty price tag of nearly $20 for a 22-ounce bomber, the wax-sealed bottles flew off the shelves, assuring a re-release in the near future.
8. Angel’s Share Ale (Bourbon Barrel Aged), The Lost Abbey
This American strong ale was brewed specifically for the barrels in Lost Abbey's epic barrel room. Unlike many beers that just happen to work out well with oak, the brewers at Lost Abbey designed their base liquid to bring out the classic characteristics of a bourbon cask. This involved using caramel and vanilla-heavy malt which sings in unison with the whiskey-logged wood holding it for several months. Its 12.5% ABV mellows considerably with some serious time spent in the bottle. Apparently good things do come to those who wait.
7. Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, Stone Brewing Company
Given the Escondido brewery's loud reputation and this beer's bombastic title, Oaked Arrogant Bastard is surprisingly nuanced. The over-the-top bitterness of the original strong ale is gently subdued by the wood, which dances delicately on the back of the tongue. Juicy and drinkable, this beer is found in both the bottle and on tap. Bonus points for year-round availability.
6. §ucaba, Firestone Walker Brewing Company
While it may be nearly impossible to pronounce, §ucaba sure is easy to love. The annual release out of Paso Robles (formerly, the beer was called Abacus) is a 13.5% ABV English-style barleywine delivering mouthfuls of stone fruit to tranquilize the booziness of the barrel (but you'll still get a full aroma of American oak in its unrelenting nose). So you best enjoy this sipper out of the snifter, like a high-end brandy — it's similarly priced.
5. Infinite Wishes, Smog City Brewery
Torrance Smog City has been slowly ramping up its barrel-aging game, but even still, tthe January release of Infinite Wishes — a barrel-aged version of its winter stout The Nothing — was impressive. After sitting in bourbon barrels for a year, the 9.7% ABV stout, a chocolately thick drink with a surprisingly drinkable dry finish, takes on even more alcohol and earthiness. The brewery itself describes the elixir in each of the hand-numbered wax-dipped bottles as “a bourbon barrel roll down a hill of dark chocolate,” which may explain why they sold out on release day a few weeks ago.
4. Equinox Barrel Aged Blond Sour, Eagle Rock Brewery
This annual rite of spring is one of the best wild ales coming out of LA County. Earthy elements—part funk, part tart—are tamed in white wine barrels, bringing a vinous complexity into the fold. Although Belgian Lambics have been aged in similar fashion for centuries, Eagle Rock is able to infuse a modern spin, lacing it's seasonal release with an ever-so-slight tinge of West Coast hops.
3. Brandy Barrel Aged Navigator, Ballast Point Brewing Company
One of the more malt-forward barreled beers on this list, Navigator is a pleasantly sweet 8% doppelbock. The brandy asserts its presence near the finish, introducing luscious strands of dried apricot and ripened pear. It's a welcome departure from its more abundant whiskey barrel-aged counterparts, as it doesn't require any additional aging to mellow out. Available exclusively on draft, you're only option is to drink it when Ballast Point says so.
2. 8 Buffalo – Beachwood BBQ & Brewing
Head to Long Beach at the beginning of March to secure a bottle of this 12% ABV imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels. Although the combination of thick, dark ale and Kentucky-style whiskey seems obvious by this point, Beachwood infuses 8 Buffalo with a number of notable distinctions. For one, the mouthfeel is crisper and lighter than its color suggests. It's a surprisingly refreshing drink with minimal heat. What's more, rather than leaving with you lingering tannins, this small batch standout departs the mouth upon a wave of bitter, dark chocolate. Yum.
1. Bourbon Barrel Aged Speedway Stout – AleSmith
AleSmith was one of San Diego's first craft breweries to release a bourbon barrel-aged beer, nearly ten years ago. They couldn't have chosen a better base product to introduce to the oak. Intense notes of chocolate and coffee are woven effortlessly into the cinnamon, and vanilla of the whiskey, delivering a thick beverage of superior complexity. The only downside here is the beer's scarcity, relative to others on this list. Thanks to infrequent, sporadic releases, the aged Speedway has become something of a whale (a hard-to-find beer) on the local scene. If you encounter it somewhere, clutch it tight and don't ever let go.