Mad-Scientist Brewers Bridge The Gap Between Beer And Whiskey
(Bloomberg) -- Eight years ago, Belgian brewer Urbain Coutteau tasted a batch of his flagship beer Pannepot, a 10 percent ABV unfiltered, unpasteurized dark ale. As owner of De Struise Brouwers, he immediately realized that some of the wrong hop varietals had been used during brewing and, while the result yielded an interesting profile, it was too much of a flavor departure from the original to be released as Pannepot.
Rather than dump the several batches affected, he thought to distill the beer into a spirit—much the way wine is the base for brandy. “Our vision was very simple,” Coutteau says. “The distillate would have to be as drinkable and complex as its base beer Pannepot, with a similar flavor profile.”
This turned out to be easier said than done. In layman’s terms, spirit distillation is the process of separating alcohol from water by heating a fermented solution—beer, in this case—and condensing and collecting the alcohol-rich vapors. “The more literature we read, the more we became convinced that the end-product quality could easily be affected downwards by taking wrong distillation procedures and/or cuts,” he says.
They ended up collaborating with Distillerie de Biercée just two hours distance from the brewery. Over two days, 20,000 liters of 2010 Pannepot was run through their still, with just 6.5 percent of the total volume becoming collected spirit. That liquid was then transferred to a miscellany of different oak barrels for extended maturation.
“The interaction between the spirit and the natural chemicals—cellulose, hemicellulose and lignine—contained in the oak wood add flavor to our distillate,” says Coutteau. “Temperature changes provoke expansion and contraction of the barrel’s wood,” which effectively allows the spirit inside to breathe in tiny amounts of new oxygen. This natural occurrence helps leach out valuable flavors from residual spirit previously held in the used barrels.
Spirits from grapes are often called “brandy,” and (aged) spirits of grains are often called “whiskey,” but Coutteau wasn’t satisfied with that limited vocabulary. “We kind of felt trapped inside these guidelines,” he says. “So we decided to simply call our spirit ‘Pannepot Distillate.’”
Now, after years aging in wood and bottled at 42 percent ABV, the first Pannepot Distillate is ready for release soon in Belgium—coming from Speyside whisky oak. Fully matured, it pours a fine, straw-yellow color, thanks to the wood’s influence, and is best enjoyed neat after a meal. It features aromas of dill and sage, with light accents of apple, pear, and marzipan. On the palate, it’s medium-dry, with elegant flavors of mirabelle plums, vanilla, and subtle wood. It’s a beautifully novel genre-defying gem that drinks somewhere between eau de vie and Scotch. Fingers crossed this makes its way stateside soon.
Seven Other Beer Distillates Worth Hunting Down
Esprit de Senne
Another collaboration between Distillerie de Biercée and a craft brewery, this time with Belgium’s iconic Brasserie de la Senne. The base beer used here was Senne’s Schieve Funambulo, a 10 percent ABV Belgian strong pale ale brewed with Italy’s Birrificio Toccalmatto. Post-distillation, the resulting clear spirit was bottled at 43 percent ABV and drinks dry on the palate with fruit and spice notes. $64
Charbay Whiskey R5
While all grain-based whiskeys’ starting point is essentially beer (minus the hops), Charbay was one of the first to distill a liquor down from bottle-ready craft beer. After making superlative whiskey from Pilsner in 1999, the producers struck up a relationship with California neighbor Bear Republic, and they’ve since made distillate from its Big Bear Stout as well as cult-favorite Racer 5 IPA, called R5, which has all the toasted-oak sweetness you’d want from a whiskey, with a robustly hoppy nose. It’s like having a humidor inside a weed dispensary. $84
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Distilled
Bamberg’s Schlenkerla, makers of the quintessential smoked German beer, Rauchbier, also produce a traditional Frankonian beer spirit with it as a base. The distillate is aged in oak, with additional smoked malt, for several months. The result is the ultimate expression of smoke—perfect with a cigar and/or by a fireplace. $55
Schneider Edelster Aventinus
The original Bavarian wheat doppelbock, G. Schneider & Sohn’s famous Aventinus, has shown brilliantly when distilled. The beer’s notes of banana, clove, black pepper, and licorice spice all come through atop a chocolate-y heat. A version aged for three years in Michel Couvreur whisky barrels is particularly noteworthy, thanks to its smoky, vanilla-laden quality. $81
Kiuchi No Shizuku Hitachino Nest
Hitachino Nest White Ale is one of the more ubiquitous craft beers enjoyed around the world. Less well-known is the distillate from brewer Kiuchi. Here, its White Ale is distilled, then transferred to oak barrels for one month, with coriander, additional hops, and orange peel. The result gets combined with further fresh ale and the mix is distilled again, then aged in oak for half a year. It drinks like eau de vie, the colorless fruit brandy, with the beer’s citrus notes backed by a woody spice and mellow sweetness. $56
Mikkeller Bourbon Cask Black
Using their 17.5 percent beast of an imperial stout, Denmark’s Mikkeller entered the distillation world. Fresh, the un-aged spirit was interesting, but it required some softening maturation. For the first batch, the brewers acquired rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels to age it in, and the resulting mature spirit combines dried fruit and bright hoppiness with toffee and big vanilla notes throughout. $74, $132 for the Pappy batch
Lone Wolf Whiskey
Out of Brooklyn, N.Y., comes forward-thinking Arcane Distilling, which utilizes the ubiquity of exemplary craft beer being produced locally as a base for its Lone Wolf series of whiskeys. Eschewing traditional methods of production, Arcane has developed a proprietary system of “vacuum distillation” by which alcohol can be concentrated at a lower room temperature (leaving more of the beer flavor intact in the spirit). A whiskey produced from Grimm Artisanal Ales’ Lambo Door Double IPA was particularly great, packing a dense hop aroma and an authentically yeasty palate. Prices and availability may vary.
To contact the author of this story: Spike Carter in New York at SpikePinch@protonmail.com.
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