Being old has many downsides, but of the scant virtues is this: a certain longer view. As I opened the package with my review bottle of Widmers' latest Brothers' Reserve, Brrrbon, I was reminded of the first beer I'd ever had aged in barrels--also from Widmer. (Of the downsides of age is faulty memory, so I have no idea when that was--late 90s, probably.) It was a bock, hearty and ripe, and one of the most popular beers at the Oregon Brewers Fest. I don't think the Widmers were first to deploy this tactic, but it's worth nodding to their long history as we look at the current beer, a barrel-aged version of their regular winter warmer, Brrr.
For awhile there, a hot new style was the "NW big red" (had I been able to see into the future, I might have tried to call it "Cascadian Red Ale"), a variation on the IPA. The color added visual interest, but the malt backbone was stripped bare to reveal the true essence of the style, hops hops hops. It was beer for people who loved hops and didn't like the flavor of beer getting in the way. Although most of the early versions are still extant, the trends moved on and they remain the standards: Ninkasi Believer, Laurelwood Free Range Red, the now deceased Roots Island Red, and Brrr, a late entrant. It's interesting that we don't see more of these beers--they're broadly admired (low score on BeerAdvocate is a B+) and of course play right into the wheelhouse of Northwest palates.
The only thing more admired is bourbon-aging. People loves them the corn liquor; put Pabst in a bourbon barrel and the crowd would go wild. So it makes all kinds of sense that Widmer would combine the two, which on paper seem to have a lot going for them as tango partners.
(Caveats, caveats. Before getting too deeply into this, I should admit that the big reds and bourbon ales are, collectively, not my fave. I liked Believer enough to give it a Satori award, and some bourbon-aged beers--including that first Widmer bock--were insanely good. But I also have reservations. Also, the Brothers sent me this bottle, which I am required by federal law to admit.)
First off, don't drink this beer. Put it in your cellar and wait at least until Christmas. Although aged four months in barrels, it's still green. Not so green that you won't enjoy it now, but at ten bucks a pop, you will appreciate it more in a couple months. As is typical in the big red style, Brrrbon has a thin body and seems fairly attenuated. Brrr is also spiced with abundant hops, and their pepper is evident here, too. This means there aren't many malt notes to bridge over to the bourbon, which has a tendency to crash into the hops.
When it fails, bourbon-aging using runs on the shoals of treacle. Added to Brrr, it's the opposite; there's not a lot for the boubon to riff on. It's as if you added maple syrup to rainwater.
All of this comes with a very large asterisk, though. I suspect there are sugars in the Brrr that will surface as the hops drop back. I further suspect that the bourbon will soften and dissolve and buoy what now seems like a thin beer. It's quite possible that the the very things I usually dislike about both big reds and bourbons will be balanced by the other. Time will tell, and this beer has earned my interest--I'll put a bottle down in the cellar and we'll see.
The stats on the beer are here. I'd give this a provisional B-, but I expect that to climb substantially as the beer matures.
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