Thursday, January 30, 2014
Wood Aging Experiment - Tasting Notes
Can a beer be cursed? Probably not. That's ridiculous.
How about wood, though: can that become cursed? Yes, definitely. The greater the surface area, the greater the risk of curse, in fact. Talk to any wizard or home-arcanist and they will tell you that the porous surface area of wood makes chips, cubes and honeycombs particularly susceptible to invasion from black magic, and therefore malignant curses.
Jeffrey Crane, of Bikes, Beers and Adventures, sent me these oak-alternative wood honeycombs almost a year ago. A number of us in the homebrewing community have been excited to try these things out, as their descriptions from Black Swan Cooperage sound extremely unique and enticing, with notes like toasted marshmallow, butter brickle and honey croissant. Jeff probably would have been the first brewer to try out all the wood variants, but his split batch designed to test them out fell prey to an infection, and so he deemed the results inconclusive. With the noble spirit of a true brewer, he tabled the project and passed along small cuts of the honeycombs to me. I brewed a batch of something-like-a-strong-ale and, post-fermentation, split it amongst 4 gallon jugs that also got four of the tastiest-sounding honeycombs.
So far I have yet to see any other brewer's trying out all these wood-combs together, for comparison. I've seen a few brewer's using one or two of them, but that's about it. So, I'm not finding much to compare to for other people's results. But to get back to the curse: I'm not very happy with any of these. Some are outright bleh, and the best (hard maple and maybe white ash) are simply okay. For a few moments, I thought the batch might even have gotten infected, just like Jeff's, even though I boiled the honeycombs more than enough to pasteurize them (with just that fear in mind.) But at this point, after I've given them so much time, I'm fairly positive infection isn't the issue at all. I'll circle back to some possible general problems with the beers later, but let's quick run through each wood-type.
Cherrywood opens up with sweet clean malts in the nose, pretty much what I would expect from a malty strong ale with some barrel character. There's a warning sign of some diacetyl, which was most likely a fermentation issue that the whole batch suffered from, despite my giving it plenty of time to clean up. Flavor-wise, this isn't too bad; something like poorly-made caramel candy. Black Swan's flavor notes for cherrywood are "butter brickle, ripe cherry, fresh grass, meringue, light fried bread/Belgian waffle." Most of those would imply sweeter, stickier flavors. I would say I am getting those notes if you took all those things and blended them together and added them to this beer, which is itself rather neutral. There's some promise, but not much complexity, and a bit of a cloying note in the finish makes this an okay-ish beer at best. None of the flavors stand out on their own, and the combined effect is too sticky and lingering.
Red Oak is as sweet as the Cherrywood version, if not more so, and the finish is once again the crippling weakness of the beer. It's both too-sweet and slightly tannic, which gives the whole thing a strange harshness. Underlying that off-note, you can pick out some sweet, fruity, caramel touches, some butterscotch, though nothing so specific as red berries (as mentioned in the description.) The overall effect is not horrible, but it's got one of those nagging off-notes that just ruins the drinking experience. Buttery hints of diacetyl in the mid-palate don't do the beer any favors, either, and some sips of this have an almost medicinal-effect, like barrel-aged Robitussin.
White Ash still has that same aroma: dry toasty crackers, buttered popcorn, slightly roasty bread, and mellow sweet malt. The stated description for white ash is "campfire, marshmallow, light grass, rising bread dough, light sweetness." As before, I could maybe kind of see how you could get some of those hints, but anything resembling such flavors jumps out in a big jumbled clash that, due to my own failings, is further muddled by a schmear of diacetyl. I could be mistaking the toastiness of the brew for campfire, the marshmallow and light sweetness for the general sweetness of the brew, and the light grass for the astringency all these brews seem to share. Put together, you have a harsh finishing note paired over a buttery sweet malt base. It's not outright bad, but it's far from great. Out of all of these so far, though, I can see white ash improving with some age, so I may return to this one later in the year.
Hard Maple is a bit of a surprise, after trying all the others first. Aggressive sweetness is a problem in all the variants, but the first sip of this one gives a jolting impression of melted old timey candy — one of those hard root beer candies, maybe mixed with some melted caramel candy. I can definitely see some syrup in this, though I don't know if it's distinctly of the maple sort. Nutmeg spice... maybe? The finish is actually on the cleaner side, despite the syrupy character that proceeds it, with less of the astringency that the others suffer from, and actually less diacetyl too. Hints of cherry and plum and grape make this seem like a bigger beer than it is — kind of like a quad minus the overtly Belgian aspects. This may be the most promising of all the variants, and I'll see how age affects it. Still, though I'm on the verge of kind-of almost enjoying it, there's something missing. Each of these beers just seems... dull, rather than off.
It's certainly been an interesting experiment. I think I suffered some bad luck with the base beer, and most likely, it would not have turned out great to begin with. Whatever happened with the yeast I pitched (a harvested yeast cake of Mangrove Jack's Burton Union strain, which I won't be doing again), the resulting diacetyl was definitely a major player in the beer's character. But given the notes that seem to be from the wood honeycombs themselves, it's hard to know what to make of them. I still think they have potential — guess I'll have to do a rebrew too.