"This'll be the only time you see me behind a cocktail bar for the rest of my life," quips Kevin Floyd, as he sets up the cooler and taps for the event starting at the Pastry War in a few minutes: A tapping of Saint Arnold's 20th Anniversary Ale aged in a Sembra Azul anejo tequila barrel.
The beer, an English-style barleywine, was brewed in this batch specifically for barrel aging. Floyd, one of Houston's most notable beer gurus as proprietor of the Hay Merchant, explained that, more than anything, the creation of this special batch was the result of the relationships between everyone involved (and a little bit of luck).
It started with Floyd's friend and business partner Bobby Heugel, founder of Anvil and the Pastry War, and his quest to learn everything he can about agave spirits. The Pastry War is Heugel's passion project, and he frequently visits Mexico to study and cultivate relationships with distillers.
The relationship that got the ball rolling on this collaboration was Heugel's relationship with David Suro, founder of Siembra Azul, a small batch tequila distillery in Jalisco that Suro founded in 2005 as a labor of love. Siembra Azul is one of the rare tequilas that ages in new oak barrels (most tequilas are aged in used American oak), and Suro contacted Heugel to tell him that he had a few particularly good barrels of French oak that might be suitable for aging something else. Heugel told Floyd, who reached out to Saint Arnold due to his relationship working with them; as luck would have it, Saint Arnold had just finished brewing a batch of their barleywine that was crafted especially for barrel aging. (The major difference, as brewmaster Aaron Inkrott explained, is that they didn't dry-hop it as they do their standard release, because dry hopping adds unwanted flavors with barrel aging.)
Even so, it was a mad dash at the last minute to make the collaboration happen: The barrel was late arriving, so Floyd had to personally retrieve it from Austin and drive it to Saint Arnold, barely making it before the batch of barleywine was already transferred into other barrels. The beer aged for five months in the barrel before being removed-- Inkrott said that he tasted it at the four-month mark and it didn't seem close to ready, but then almost overnight hit the sweet spot.
The first keg of it was tapped at the Pastry War on Monday evening and sold out within two hours. Floyd says future events with the remaining beer will be forthcoming, including a likely appearance at Hay Merchant's anniversary party in February.
And how about the barleywine as a beverage, not just a story? Inkrott describes the beer as a "British barleywine" whose lineage goes back to the very first Divine Reserve release; he explained that many American breweries make "American-style" barleywines that are very hop-forward, but that he preferred the malt-dominant "British" style. (In addition, he mentioned that many barleywines have corn sugar added during the process to increase the alcohol content, but Saint Arnold's does not.)
I thought the barrel aging was a success; the heavy body of the barleywine holds up the increased booziness in the front end well, and that initial whiff of potency gives way to the hints of tequila flavor and oak that compliment the body, before a strong grassy finish rounds it off. It's a strong beer, to be sure, but it is complex and rewarding to drink.
All in all, the beer represents the best of what Houston has to offer when it comes to beverages: several of our homegrown experts collaborating together on a labor of love at what they do best.
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