Can a single brewery host a beer fest, where its own products are the only beers available? Of course, it can; who is to say multiple competing brewers are required? The modern definition of the beer festival event is wide and accommodating, and this is precisely what Sherman’s 903 Brewers hosted in February: a beer fest of their very own.
The Barrel-Aged Fest 2022 was packed inside 903 Brewers’ historic brewery taproom in addition to their ordinary weekend activities, with a late-winter cold snap forcing everyone off outdoor patio seating despite clear skies and sun. A small acoustic band performed country tunes in front of lines of Shermanites buying cases of local beer, sports were playing on the multiple mounted televisions, and the aroma of fry oil from the adjoining kitchen periodically floated into the room.
After years of the traditional larger, broader beer fests, the smaller and more specialized events such as these can be appreciated. The pressure to sample as many widely varied products from as many new and familiar names as possible, often struggling to locate limited releases before they run dry, can become tiresome. Sometimes it is preferable to attend a more intimate event with a narrower focus, whether that focus is on a single style, method/application, locale, region or even a lone commercial brewer.
Some may dismiss such an event as an unadulterated, self-indulgent marketing fiat; this is a valid criticism, and not entirely untrue. But for a brewery to invest such time and resources into aging products for two years or longer—with no guarantee of success or recoup on investment—is a risk that the American independent craft brewery is all about. Such experimentation and public promotion, even if cynically reduced to commercial opportunism, should be enjoyed if not actively encouraged. People love an event, and craft consumers (should) love expanding their stylistic experiences.
The festival was admittedly narrow in scope, with owner/brewer Jeremy Roberts offering a mere six beers in the day’s lineup. Each beer was one of 903’s standard or limited-edition offerings aged in whiskey and bourbon barrels from another local beverage producer, Denison‘s award-winning Ironroot Republic Distillery. However, the limited menu was understandable considering the potency of this particular bunch, spanning well into the double-digit ABV strengths.
The lineup, and the order in which they were imbibed:
- Dracarys (ABV 12.8%), Russian imperial stout with ancho and smoked serrano chiles, aged 30 months. Woody, earthy, not much heat left after aging. However, a smoky dried chile flavor builds after a few sips, with an acidic pepper bite by the end of the sample.
- Birthday Sasquatch (ABV 11.5%), double chocolate fudge milk stout with marshmallows, aged 24 months. Cloying, chemical flavor of marshmallow is initially off-putting, but a deep cocoa base helps elevate the balance through the glass.
- Crackin’ Up Pecan Porter (ABV 9%), robust American porter with pecans, aged 25 months. Milder than previous samples (by nature of the style), but marries well with the barrel-aging. Mellow, smooth, natural beer flavor emerges, and likely benefits most from barrel enhancement. More of the wood barrel flavor comes through than with the other beers.
- Trojan Horse Barleywine (ABV 14.6%), American barleywine, aged 23 months. Highest alcohol content of the panel for a style built for laying down for years. A complex malty flavor merges and benefits from the added wood/whiskey elements inherent in barrel aging. Its deep flavor with dry malt dominates, leaves it smooth and easy to sink into a leather chair in front of a fireplace.
- PB Jammin’ Stout (ABV 9.9%), strong stout with peanut butter and fruit jam, aged 20 months. Immediate peanut butter, berry jam flavors with a nose of dusty cardboard. Musty, muddy flavors, somewhat nutty, sweet with indistinct fruit (raspberry? blueberry?). The least successful barrel-aged addition on today’s panel, as it conflicts with the barrel’s woody nature.
- Pecan Porter Brewers Reserve (ABV 12.7%), Crackin’ Up Pecan Porter brewed with maple syrup, coffee and oak, aged 24 months. Double aged with oak, flavor elements of iron, malt, nuts, cocoa. Lightly syrupy, traces of maple flavor with a sweet and luxurious balance.
Each 4-oz sample was poured from a large-format 750-ml bottle, and the basic ticket included a tasting card and fine commercial TEKU stemmed tasting glass bearing the brewery logo. All beers were available for individual package sale (and some still are, directly from the brewery).
A favorite? Although partial to the chile beers, must go with the Trojan Horse Barleywine for the win. The complex malts and depth of flavors not only complement the wood from time spent in barrels but the nature of the style itself is designed to improve with age. Regardless, the opportunity to sample such a variety of beers barrel-aged for relatively long stretches of time is a craft beer education unto itself.