For beer week this year, Karl Strauss and Monkey Paw bottle released a long-brewing collaboration under the French name Deux Amis (Two Friends). Monkey Paw's contribution, a three year Bourdeaux barrel-aged strong ale, was blended with a spontaneously fermented, two-year American oak barrel-aged sour made by Karl Strauss. Prior to bottling, tart Michigan cherries were added to the oaky, winy blend, resulting in the sort of unique, complex flavors one would expect from a beer three years in the making.
I thought I would write about it, but plans changed when I came across another Karl Strauss release: a bourbon, oak, and vanilla bean version of Wreck Alley imperial stout.
So, in the spring Karl Strauss releases a limited batch of Barrel-Aged Vanilla Bean Wreck Alley, which spends a year in bourbon oak barrels. But that's not what I found at Hamilton's last week. This 12.4% beer was described on the chalkboard taplist as "Bourbon oak soak imperial stout with vanilla bean." No mention of barrels, or aging, but still a version featuring bourbon, oak, and vanilla.
Without adornment, Wreck Alley has long been one of the city's best Russian imperial stouts, brewed with cocoa nibs and a blend of Ethiopian coffee beans provided by Bird Rock Coffee Roasters. But if you ask me, aging it with vanilla beans only makes it better. Turns out, so does a bourbon oak soak with vanilla beans.
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But what exactly is that? I asked around at Karl Strauss to get to the bottom of it. They said Hamilton's and Monkey Paw owner Scot Blair had requested more of the barrel-aged version, but the rare spring release was long gone. So Karl's R&D Brewmaster, Paul Segura, decided to get creative, using a "signature oaking technique to produce a very similar result in a shorter amount of time than it takes to barrel-age a beer."
Segura soaked French oak chips in Jim Beam and hand-split vanilla beans from Madagascar, adding them to Wreck Alley and giving them a week in a stainless steel vessel to absorb flavor. A Karl Strauss rep says, "This technique allows us to speed up the timing, save storage space, and produce a customer-specific request when time is limited."
In other words, not as time-consuming or expensive, but a reasonable facsimile of the flavors that made the aged release something special. Too many months have passed since I tried the actual barrel-aged version, so I can't compare the two in detail. However, I found the oak soak to have a pleasing smoothness, the bourbon, oak, and vanilla flavors working well with the coffee, cocoa, and dark malts.
There's definitely no faking some of the deeper notes that arise in a strong beer when given time to age. But if it's between waiting until spring or drinking this crafty alternative, I'm glad to have this ad hoc option.