Over the past few months, there’s been a run of barrel-aged beers from Israeli craft breweries.
Putting beer to sleep in wooden barrels is not something new – European breweries have been doing it for centuries – but it is a practice that has been renewed by the resurgence of craft brewing around the world.
Maturing a strong-style beer in a used barrel adds depth and complexity to the aroma and flavor, and may also have an effect on the alcoholic content. The beer absorbs the flavors of the wood (normally oak) as well as of the former occupants (normally whiskey or wine). Beers can pick up flavors such as the wood itself, and chemical compounds that duplicate floral aromas, caramel and vanilla. The color can also darken.
Since most of the beers chosen for maturing are high alcohol by volume anyway, the barrel aging makes them darker, even more flavorful and often more boozy.
From the Alexander Brewery in Emek Hefer comes the 2021 edition of their Barley Wine, among the strongest beer styles known. This one is 11.2% alcohol by volume, indeed similar to the alcohol content of wine.
This is the fourth annual edition of Alexander’s Barley Wine, and the first to be aged in barrels. It slept for six months in ex-bourbon barrels, and only 3,900 numbered bottles were released.
It pours out as a slightly hazy reddish-copper color, with no head and no visible bubbles. The aromas and flavors are full and complex. You get the bitter and the sweet in good balance, with flavors of oak wood, whisky, coconut, vanilla, dark fruits and dark chocolate. The texture is full body and creamy, heated by the alcohol.
This is a beer you should drink in little snifter glasses like brandy, and at room temperature. It should go well with especially robust foods, strong cheeses and even creamy desserts.
Another seasonal beer that was barrel aged for the first time is Barrel Aged Jack’s Winter Ale (Special Edition) from the Shapiro Brewery in Beit Shemesh. Earlier, Shapiro issued its regular Jack’s Winter Ale for the 11th year in a row. Don’t confuse them. That was not barrel aged. The barrel-aged version has the words right on the label. In fact, it is last winter’s (2021) version that slept for 11 months in ex-whisky barrels from the Milk & Honey Distillery in Tel Aviv. While it slept, some of the liquid evaporated through the barrel, boosting the alcoholic volume from 8.5% to 10.2%.
The powerful beer pours out a dark ruby color with a thin head and no visible carbonation. You’re overwhelmed by sweet aromas of whisky, caramel, vanilla and, of course, oak wood. On the palate, there is a balance between the whisky bitterness and the sweet caramel from the hops, backed with flavors of molasses, prunes, raisins, and who-knows-what other dried fruits. As the beer warms up in your glass, expect more flavors to emerge.
The mouthfeel brings a medium body, still carbonation and alcoholic warmth, fading to a lingering, smooth, whisky-bitter finish. People tasting this beer for the first time may find it inexplicable but it is to our pride that such beers are now made in Israel.
THE BEERBAZAAR Brewery in Kiryat Gat, with brewpubs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv–Jaffa, has also released the fifth annual edition of its OMG, a series of strong, barrel-aged beers of different styles. This year’s version is a Baltic Porter, a stronger cousin to the traditional English-style Porter. It was aged in whisky and rum barrels (from the Golan Distillery) for five months, and is 7.9% ABV. It is sold in 750 ml. bottles, each one numbered, and only about 1,000 were released.
The Baltic Porter is a clear deep ruby color, and if poured correctly has a large rocky beige head. The aromas are not especially complex: I got roasted malt, alcohol and oak wood. The bitterness comes not only from the hops, but also from the roasted malt, which also carries flavors of chocolate and dried fruits. There is also the taste of oak and booze with a sour note. You end with alcoholic warmth, spice on the tongue and a long, roasty finish.
Birateinu, the Jerusalem Beer Center, launched three barrel-aged beers – all aged in the same 225-liter barrel – one right after the other. I haven’t heard nor read about anything like this being tried anywhere else. Birateinu partner and brewer Shmuel (“Schmulz”) Naky brewed these interesting beers at the Beertzinut Brewery on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley.
The first one is called Barmalei (named after a fictional Russian pirate who terrorized Africa), aged for four months in an ex-Shiraz wine barrel. It is a Russian Imperial Braggot (a kind of mead-beer hybrid), and it picked up the flavors of the wine and of the barrel itself. Alcohol by volume (ABV) is 9.8%.
Barmelei pours out the darkest brown, opaque to light, no head to speak of, with minimum carbonation. That’s already a good sign that you’re dealing with a strong, rich, full-bodied beer. The very noticeable aromas included brandy right up front, burnt molasses, brown sugar and mocha. The flavors were sweet with dried fruits, honey, molasses, wood, brown sugar and chocolate.
Beer number two, Guerrilla Syndicate, filled the barrel after Barmalei. It is an Imperial Cherry Sour, soured first with Philly Sour yeast and then fruited in a tank for two months with Amarena cherries from Italy and vanilla beans. It was then aged in the barrel for about 4 and a half months. ABV is 8.4%.
Syndicate Guerrilla filled the glass with a dark amber liquid, tinged with red. The Amarena cherries were in the aroma and the taste. Although we also got the added vanilla (which might have also come from the wooden barrel) and almonds, the cherries were definitely dominant. The sweet flavors and the souring yeast gave the beer a (what else?) sweet and sour quality.
The third beer taking over the same barrel was Pri Bi’ushim (in English, “Fruit in Despair” or by extension, “a disappointing outcome”), an Imperial Hoppy Sour beer, made with spelt. ABV is 8.1%.
Pri Bi’ushim is also mildly sour. The color is hazy light amber, with winey and funk aromas. The taste is sour and fruity, with orange, apples and dry white wine.
SCHMULZ AND the Birateinu crew have shown more than once that they are willing to take risks and produce beers that are not for everybody – not by a long shot – but by following their creative instincts alone, they are bringing bursts of excitement to the world of Israeli craft brewing.
And finally, three different branded beers from the Malka Brewery in the Tefen Industrial Area were released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hacarem Spirits Ltd., a major importer and marketer of beer, wine, spirits and food, as well as holding interests in Malka.
The three beers carry the brands of Malka, Negev and Herzl. All three were aged in oak barrels that previously held Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
The beers were aged in the barrels for five months and were bottled by hand in numbered 750 ml. bottles, before packaging in specially designed cartons. Only 2,200 bottles of each beer were produced. All three are powerful beers, both in taste and in alcohol by volume, which is 10%. The strength and the style of each one make them suitable for aging.
The beer from Malka is a Strong Scotch Ale, a style where the malt aromas and flavors far outweigh the hops.
The color is clear dark amber with crimson highlights; the head is thin and the bubbles are fine. I smelled the whisky and strong chocolate and caramel from the malts. These same malts controlled the sweetness in the taste, alongside flavors of whisky, caramel and raisins. The barrel aging is evident from the oak taste. A full body completes the picture.
The Negev beer is an Imperial Porter, also among the strongest beer styles, with high bitterness and flavors of roasted malt.
The beer is the blackest opaque black topped with a thin brown head. I let the aromas and the flavors blend into a rich symphony. Alcohol was conspicuous, of course, but also some oak, dark chocolate, caramel, roasty malt and molasses. It is full-bodied with a long and bitter aftertaste.
Herzl Beers’ contribution to the trio is an American Barley Wine, hoppier and more bitter than the original English version, combined with sweetness from the malt.
This Barley Wine is an attractive hazy copper color, also with a skimpy head and bubbles slowly rising. You get aromas of malt, dried fruits, whisky and sugar/caramel. Like most Barley Wines, the initial taste is sweet (in this case, with flavors of caramel, raisins and alcohol), before ending in a bitter, whisky finish. ■
The writer is the owner of MediawiSe, an agency for advertising and direct marketing in Jerusalem. He writes a weblog on Israeli craft beers at www.IsraelBrewsAndViews.blogspot.co.il