On a quiet Sunday afternoon in October, when most people are far from work, a team of taste testers arrived at Speakeasy Ales & Lagers. Twenty barrels of beer were waiting, aligned in rows, ready for inspection. Each contained one of several different beer recipes. All had been aging from one to just over two years.
Led by head brewer Kushal Hall, the team’s task was to sample the contents of each barrel, create several different blends, and choose the best one. Their choice became the first installment of Speakeasy’s new barrel-aging program, called the Syndicate Series.
According to Speakeasy, “Each Syndicate release will be a unique blend of strong beers that have been aged in American spirits barrels for no less than nine months. Syndicate No. 01 is a blend of six strong ales matured between 12-26 months in various bourbon barrels.”
The recipe for Syndicate No. 1:
- Old Godfather (51%) Barleywine aged 26 months
- Black Hand Volume 1 (15%) Imperial Stout aged 13 months
- Two Minutes to Midnight (14%) Imperial Stout aged 12 months
- Betrayal (11%) Imperial Red aged 12 months
- Double Daddy (5%) Imperial IPA aged 12 months
- Payback (3%) Robust Porter aged 18 months
After the blending session, Kushal Hall talked about the blending process, what went into the finished beer, and his approach to barrel aging at Speakeasy. Our conversation is below.
(Assistant brewer Joe Smith pouring a sample for Kushal Hall)
Talk a little bit about the base beer that went into Syndicate No. 1.
“So the first beer we put into barrels for this project was a version of our Old Godfather Barleywine, which is really more like an Old Ale. It was made with just two-row malt and a little bit of Vienna, kind of copying English pale malt. Then we added some Columbus hops for bittering and Cascade all the way through to dry hopping.
All of the color in the beer came from kettle caramalization on a four-hour boil. It was just kind of a big fun beer, and other than a keg I think we made for the brewery, everything went into Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. We had nine and half barrels of that for the base beer of the Syndicate No. 1 release.
That was the first beer we tasted to see if they were all good. We were happy with all of them. The one barrel that we had questions about was half full, but it was just a little more intense.”
So other than just seeing how good they tasted, you were also looking for flaws?
“Yes, anything that might have gotten sour or contaminated with bacteria that we would just completely dump down the drain.”
Have you encountered that before?
“Yeah, one of my favorite beers that I’ve ever made at Speakeasy, or homebrewing, was Payback Porter that we put into a zin barrel. That beer was incredible. We tried to recreate that like four times and they all went sour. We’ve had the most luck with bourbon barrels. They show up wet with bourbon and so you don’t have worry too much about any bugs in there like you do with wine barrels. It’s a little bit trickier with those. We’re not trying do anything sour intentionally. We mostly put barleywines, imperial beers, and stouts into the barrels now.”
Could you describe the blending process and what kind of flavors you were looking for? Also, how many different blends did you make today?
“I think we did a total of seven blends and we ended up going with the fifth one we created. When we blended the beers together and started sampling them we were trying to sort out the various flavors we had. We went through a few different scale tests and different variations of stout blends and imperial red blends.
The Old Godfather Barleywine was pretty thin on it’s own, so we added a fair amount of stout, which gave the beer more body and cut down on the boozy heat. It made it more drinkable as a barrel-aged beer and also really brought out more of the chocolate and dried fruit flavors that made it a lot more complex and interesting.
Then the Double Daddy and Imperial Red added some more bright hoppy high notes and a little more caramel. It was good, we were happy with it. We had a couple Firestone Walker Anniversary beers along the way for inspiration, and I think this stands up to one of those interesting and complex barrel-aged beers.”
How much barrel aging has Speakeasy done in the past?
“During the six years I’ve been here we’ve may be done, other then the barrels we put away for the Syndicate Series and our previous barrel aged Scarface Stout, we’ve probably done something like 20 barrels before that. We always did one barrel at a time just for fun. We did a bourbon barrel aged Payback Porter a few times. We also did an imperial version of the Payback Porter, which we’ve got to do again. That was awesome. It was a 9.5% version of Payback. It was phenomenal. We threw that in bourbon barrels and took those to Boonville. So it was just kind of for fun.”
What does the future of the Syndicate Series look like?
“The Syndicate Series is intended to be a series of 100% barrel-aged beers. They will be a blend of different beers in each release. No release will be the same as the next. No recipe will be repeated. Although some of the beers that go into barrels will be repeats on recipes, like Scarface Stout, Old Godfather Barleywine, Imperial Red, and some other beers that were never released, except into barrels, like Two Minutes to Midnight Stout.”
Photos © Brian Stechschulte