Perhaps it was inevitable in the land of hop-laden beers. But a recent rise in spirits that incorporate brewing's main bittering elements not only highlights the surging interest in craft beer, but also serves as an inlet to better understanding the hidden overlaps between the worlds of brewing and distillation. From Charbay Winery & Distillery's recently released hop-flavored whiskeys, to the upcoming "beer schnapps" from Stillwater Spirits and Moylan's Distilling Company, microdistilleries in the North Bay find themselves at the very forefront of distillers embracing the citrusy, piney and herbaceous contributions of hops.
Marko Karakasevic, the master distiller at Charbay in St. Helena, comes from a long line of artisanal distillers and began learning the craft from his father at an early age. It was a shared interest in both distilling and homebrewing that piqued his curiosity about what would result from combining the two. "I obviously knew wine distilled into brandy," recalls Karakasevic, "because I was distilling that with my dad already, and I was brewing beer, and I was learning more and more that whiskey is distilled from those same grains and malts that I was using to make my beer. Except I was adding killer hops, like Chinook, Cascade, Nugget, Eroica.
"And so I was, like, well, what's the difference between using (so to speak) a 'distiller's beer' or wash or any term you give it [the fermented, often beer-strength precursor that ultimately gets distilled in making spirits] versus a bottle-ready beer that's got alcohol in it. I mean, if it's got alcohol in it, you can distill it. And I'm not really afraid of trying to distill anything."
Karakasevic's first commercial effort in distilling beer started back in 1999, when he and his father crafted 24 barrels of hopped whiskey from a (now-defunct) local brewery's Pilsner. Of those barrels, only seven have so far been bottled, with an additional small offering (Release III) planned for early next year. While the hefty anticipated price tag ($450) guarantees that I will be looking elsewhere for stocking stuffers next year, this first production serves to highlight the vastly different time frames between making finished beer (often two to three weeks) and distilling a polished whiskey. Thirteen years or so along, they've still only released one-third of the batch.
More recently, Charbay partnered up with Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing Co. to create a series of double-distilled, hop-flavored whiskeys. "I went to them because, first of all, I love their beer," says Karakasevic, "and second of all, they can produce a tanker for me." Having an adequate supply of wash (or its finished beer equivalent) is important, especially when the distilling processes winnow the final product down to about one-tenth its original volume. In creating their pair of "R5" whiskeys from Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, a 6,000-gallon tanker of beer ultimately produced about 590 gallons of distillate. That concentrated result was then aged in either stainless steel ("clear") or French oak ("aged") over a period of 22 months.
Both versions were released in August of this year, and I received a small sample bottle of each for review. Neither their R5 Clear Whiskey ($52) nor the R5 Aged Whiskey ($75) showed anything out of the ordinary hop-wise in the aroma (the volatile hop aromatics just boil off), but hop-derived flavors approximating citrusy pith and hints of pine came through quite clearly from those first sips forward. The clear version was a better showcase for the hops' contribution, while the aged rendition seemed softer on the approach, with additional wood sugars and toasted barrel notes throughout. Adding a drop of water opened things up in both, while an ice cube unveiled the malt underpinnings.
I found both enjoyable, particularly with an ice cube tempering the ethanol; it's useful to note that for each, the hop contributions manifest as an auxiliary note, not as tongue-numbing, IPA-like bitterness. It's more of a familiar flavor profile, pointing to high-quality ingredients. "Don't get me wrong," adds Karakasevic. "If you add a splash of Antica Carpano vermouth to it and a cherry, it makes an amazing Manhattan. But it's designed to be consumed neat."
In addition to the R5 offerings, Charbay also recently released a hop-flavored whiskey called "S" ($70), distilled from Bear Republic's assertive Big Bear black stout. Other beer-oriented projects are already in process and aging (distilling isn't a profession for the impatient), with Karakasevic and Bear Republic collaborating to tweak their recipes and further improve the distillations. When asked about the future of Charbay's involvement with beer, Karakasevic simply replies, "[It's] a program I'm going to continue with for probably the rest of my life."
Stillwater Spirits/Moylan's Distilling Company in Petaluma recently started up a beer-based distillation program of its own, taking advantage of the common ownership between the distillery and Moylan's Brewery and Restaurant in Novato. "We probably have a hundred different projects going right now," says Brendan Moylan, speaking of the distillery.
"Half-finished," he adds, chuckling.
The new Moylan's brand of spirits was launched earlier in the year, using wort (unfermented beer) created at the brewery and then trucked over to the distillery. While the worts for these first releases are ultimately unhopped, they embody the essence of collaboration between the two entities (and are reminiscent of relations between Bear Republic and Charbay). Moylan's American Rye Whiskey and Bourbon Whiskey Cask Strength will be followed in the coming months by whiskeys finished in orange brandy barrels and ones smoked with cherry wood.
Beer schnapps will follow soon afterward. Tim Welch serves as head distiller for Stillwater and Moylan's, and he currently has a variety of different barrels aging distilled Moylan's beer inside of them, as well as plans to fill more. "It takes a lot of attention," Welch says of using various hopped beers in the distillation process. "When you're putting beer into the still, it's volatile. It's not like making a vodka or a brandy or grappa, or anything like that. It's volatile, so it's susceptible to flash boils; it takes some babying. The same is true of the single malts."
Moylan and Welch plan to bottle two of these hopped distillates in 2013, the first made from Moylan's Kilt Lifter Scotch-style ale and their second from White Christmas, a spiced winter lager. Additional beer-based projects are in the works. While they refer to the results as "beer schnapps," Welch emphasized that this doesn't imply any technical distinction from calling it hop-flavored whiskey or otherwise.
So why beer schnapps? "It kind of rolls off the tongue."