Jason van Rassel
Big Rock Brewery's sherry-aged beer in glass
Big Rock Brewery's sherry-aged beer in glass
Big Rock Brewery has been quietly building a barrel-aging program for a number of years — something I was recently reminded of when I came across its latest release, a barleywine aged in rum barrels.
I figured it was a good time to review not just the most recent release, but to take one of Big Rock’s first barrel-aged editions from 2014 out of my cellar (which is actually a closet) to see how it’s doing.
I also thought it was a good time to write about Big Rock, in light of a recent post by fellow beer writer Jason Foster. Jason (not me — the other one) is one of Alberta’s best and most knowledgeable beer writers, but he impressed me even more than usual with a recent blog post defending the province’s established craft breweries.
The recent explosion of breweries in Alberta has enabled what Foster dubs “Shiny New Thing Syndrome,” where excitement about new producers and new styles entering the marketplace can prompt craft fans to overlook or even begin scorning the province’s more established players.
One of Foster’s points — and I agree with him — is the older breweries make more accessible beers because that’s what they had to do to earn money at a time when palates in Alberta weren’t as sophisticated.
Foster didn’t name any breweries so he wouldn't distract from his overall point, but I couldn’t help thinking of Big Rock. The company recently launched a social media campaign extolling the virtues of its Traditional Ale, or “Trad,” as it’s more commonly known — a beer that it has brewed since its founding more than 30 years ago. I’m sure a lot of longtime craft beer aficionados have a soft spot for it but have probably gone years without having one — and I admit I can’t remember the last time I ordered a Trad. But I remember attending a tasting event led by Calgary cicerone Bill Bonar, who said that all the innovation happening in Alberta doesn’t change the fact that Trad remains a great English-style brown ale — and he’s absolutely right.
But another reason I thought about Big Rock is because it’s not only brewing the old standbys, it’s taking its beer in new directions too. Last summer, the brewery branched out into making Belgian-style sour ales, which get their characteristic funk from airborne microbiota that inoculate the beer. The brewery designed and built a koelschip, an open vessel that promotes spontaneous fermentation by allowing wild yeast strains to settle into the cooling wort, and installed it in a specialized room with louvred windows to let the airborne stuff in.
Big Rock’s considerable investment in a barrel-aging program is another sign it’s not standing still.
The recently-released rum barrel-aged barleywine spent eight months in casks sourced from St. Nicholas Abbey in the Barbados, which shuns more modern techniques to continue making rum the old way. Big Rock then blended the barrel-aged beer with an amber ale.
The beer poured into my tulip glass with a small off-white head. The aroma was sugary with muted rum notes. It hit my palate with a big caramelized sugar sweetness that yielded to some alcoholic heat — though I have to say it’s pretty mellow for 10.8% ABV. When the alcohol receded, I could better pick up the rum characteristics imparted by the barrel, along with some dark fruit.
Everything hung together pretty well, in the sense that the traits from the beer and the rum barrels married well. Here again I find myself agreeing with Foster: blending the barleywine with the amber seemed to make it a bit thin-bodied for the style. I expect a barleywine to be more chewy. Maybe it’s a geeky quibble, considering it’s still a nice beer, but it’s worth noting for people who pay attention to such things.
My decision to crack open one of the three barrel-aged beers from Big Rock’s first foray in 2014 was influenced, in part, by friends who had recently tried the sherry-aged one and concluded it had peaked. This got my attention, because when they were released, the sherry-aged beer was the weakest of the trio, which also included bourbon- and cognac-aged ales.
I’m happy to report that time has been kinder to the sherry-aged sibling. It poured a cloudy tawny colour with an inviting fluffy head. The aroma and taste were grape-y and vinous to start, but the beer revealed a richer, port-like flavour with some toffee, raisin and plum notes coming through, particularly as it warmed up. There was a flash of boozy warmth in the middle, but overall it hid the 8.25% ABV. Sipping a beer of this strength is always a good idea — and in this particular case, it helped because the beer improved and opened up: initially, the finish was astringent and slightly metallic, but it became less harsh and diminished the longer it was open.
Both beers have some rough edges, but they demonstrate Big Rock’s barrel-aging program has promise and it remains a brewery worth watching.
Jason van Rassel is a freelance beer writer and a regular contributor to Drink With Me, The Daily Beer and theYYSCENE.ca. Jason is a member of the North American Guild of Beer Writers. You can find him on Twitter and Untappd.