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Report: 2009 Barrel-Aged Beer Festival at The Bistro: Hayward, CA

Today I attended an excellent beer festival at The Bistro in Hayward, CA. It went under various names:

  • The Barrel Aged Festival
  • The Bistro Wood Barrel Aged Beer Festival
  • West Coast Barrel-Aged Festival

But whatever it was called, Vic Kralj and his team pulled off a great event. Like several attendees, I was hit by some sticker shock – $40 for ten 2oz pours, up from last year’s already-high $35. I hope that’s because The Bistro pays the breweries for their beers (some festivals get brewers to provide beer for free – saying it’s for marketing).

In any case, there were 65 beers on tap, most from the West Coast. Here are scans of the beer list provided to attendees:

Today’s was the fourth annual barrel-aged festival at The Bistro – I’ve made them all except last year’s. Unlike at previous years’ barrel-aged festivals – and unlike at The Bistro’s other annual festivals – there was no professional judging at today’s event. “Barrel-aged” isn’t really a style in itself, so it’s very difficult to compare beers of such varying types.

(There was still a People’s Choice ballot, but as of this writing I haven’t seen any word on the winner. Usually Jay Brooks posts this information, but I don’t see it on his event writeup here. I’ll update this post when the winner is announced.)

Regardless, two general categories could describe the majority of beers on offer: 1) sour (generally Belgian-style, inoculated with wild yeast or bacteria) or 2) dark and sweet (usually aged in an American whiskey barrel).

Although I love sour beers, today I stuck almost exclusively to the latter type. All told I tried twelve beers, not quite 20% of what was being poured. I did not have a bad beer today. While it’s possible I just got lucky in my selection, I would rather believe that it’s because American brewers are getting the hang of how to use wood to age their beers.

Here are my thoughts on each beer I tried, stack ranked from favorite to least-favorite:

  • Grand Teton Bourbon Aged Doppelbock (9.5/10): My favorite of the day. Loads of vanilla, but the overall character was simultaneously sweet and dry, somehow. Quite complex. (At heart I’m a lager guy – I’ve got a soft spot for lager yeasts and styles.)
  • Fifty Fifty Brewing Imperial Eclipse Stout 2008 (9.5/10): Sublime. Rounded, chocolatey, warm, a bit of bourbon wood without overpowering the beer. A big beer, but balanced. Really wonderful.
  • Deschutes Black Butte XXI (9/10): The same as the bottled version? Regardless, downright sensational – this beer beats the better-known “Abyss” hands down. Surprisingly mellow, lots of coffee without overdoing it. Just a great beer that does not shows its 11.0% alcohol.
  • Moylan’s Wet Hopsickle 2009 (8.5/10): A little bit of the Double IPA Festival right here on Barrel-Aged day! But seriously, the super-juicy hops are balanced really nicely by the Chardonnay barrel. Previous editions of this beer have been sickly sweet, obscuring that American hop character. But this one nails it – excellent.
  • Linden Street Burning Oak Black Lager (8.0/10): Much different from most others I’ve tried, in that this was truly the texture of a lager (thinner than the robust ales typically aged in barrels). Just up and down good. This one aged with bourbon-soaked oak chips – the type of thing a homebrewer could do. And should, based on the subtle character it adds to this great Schwarzbier.
  • Glacier Brewhouse Oak Aged Glacier Eisbock (8.0/10): Smelled to me like a beer from a bourbon barrel, but no – listed just as a “used American oak wine barrel”. Scrumptious malt (my note is “yummy!”). The brewer’s description (see p2 above) says it’s “brilliant dark ruby red in color”, though mine was a murky but not unattractive brown.
  • Sierra Nevada Porter on Scotch (7.5/10): Sierra Nevada brought the only two beers explicitly stated to have been aged in Scotch whisky barrels (which were of course used for bourbon or sherry before going over to Scotland). I really liked this porter, which was bone dry. In fact that was its only flaw – just dry and a bit smoky, without any respite. I would love to add a bit of a sweeter beer, see how it helps round this one out.
  • Bear Republic Clobberskull (7.5/10): “Brewed with 10% raw wheat and 10% split peas[!]”. Wow. I described this one asĀ  “fascinating mess”, with no perceptible pea flavor. Fruity, some latent tartness, also some sweet viscosity. But not too much of anything.
  • Bear Republic Trebuchet (7.0/10): Belgian Tripel from a 100 year old Cognac barrel. Unusual. Not quite sour, but some fruit. This one lacked “beerness”, turning more into a spirit-type taste.
  • Fifty Fifty Brewing Imperial Eclipse Stout 2009 (7.0/10): Very good, but not great. Hard to believe it’s the same beer as the 2008 vintage mentioned above. Thinner mouthfeel, a tiny bit harsh. Is the only difference the barrel (this one’s Jack Daniels vs. the ’08’s Pappy Van Winkle) and a year of age?
  • Maui Black Pearl (7.0/10): Coconut! This must be Maui’s flagship coconut porter with some barrel aging, though the writeup doesn’t make that clear. I love the base beer and used to buy it all the time before they changed it from six-packs to four-packs and increased the price. But the barrel doesn’t seem to add much here, and it certainly doesn’t tame the slightly edgy texture.
  • Glacier Brewhouse Beam Black Rye Bock (6.0/10): The day’s only misfire. Which was a shame, since it was the only beer mentioned to be made with rye malt, which is always a favorite of mine. The flavor seemed like it could have been great, but the finish on this beer was super short – over before you even could get at it.

A great – if pricey – beer festival. Amazing to see the fun brewers are having with wood aging. See you at next year’s!

(P.S. My blog covers all sorts of unrelated topics. If you’re interested in just the posts about beer, you can subscribe to those here.)


  1. J

    Sorry Ethan, I had to leave before the People’s Choice announcement, but I sent an e-mail to Vic to inquire about who won.

    Posted on 15-Nov-09 at 6:44 am | Permalink
  2. T

    FiftyFifty Imperial Eclipse Stout 2008 won

    Posted on 17-Nov-09 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  3. The Fifty Fifty 2008 Stout was downright amazing. Glad to see other folks thought the same.

    Posted on 17-Nov-09 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

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