Before we jump in, I want to provide a quick disclaimer that this is a particularly long post. There’s a lot to be said about this beer and how we got here and I didn’t want to leave anything out. With that said, the post is divided into three sections, the first elaborates on the journey of inspiration, the second outlines how the idea came together and the third describes what it is that we’ve created. If you’re seeking a quicker explanation of what it is that we’re releasing, please just jump to part 3. However, we hope that you’ll take the time to appreciate the entire journey that we’ve undertaken to release this new beer.
Part 1 - The Road to Inspiration
The creative process is an interesting enigma. It can vary from acute bursts of inspiration to long and meandering journeys with endless diversions. In my personal experience, the best ideas tend to come together through some combination of both, with moments of intense inspiration generating new trails that one then wanders down to see where they lead. Much like the analogy would imply, the process is rarely straightforward, there are moments when progress is obvious, and others where you feel like you’re completely lost. It’s a process that requires constant evaluation, re-orienting and commitment to see the end through.
The last several years, I have found myself stumbling about on a journey that’s been anything but straightforward. To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure where it began, but I can recount some key themes as well as some stand out moments that influenced the journey. I suppose the idea began to take shape over the many formative years of my experience entering the craft beer industry. Very early on, I became interested in a style called barleywine, one that, while theoretically well defined by the guidelines of the BJCP, I’ve found to manifest in about as many forms as one could imagine. Some of the key elements though are these, alcoholic strength, intensity of flavor, a focus on malt character and an emphasis on aging. When I was first getting into beer I remember seeking out some of the most famous examples of the style being produced in America at the time, two that come to mind are Stone Old Guardian and Lost Abbey Angels Share. If you’ve had both of these, then you already know they’re about as similar as ice and fire. The former is a classic example of “American” barleywine, having the characteristic features of caramel, bread and malt sweetness but with a pungent throughline of resinous American hops punching through the whole of the experience. The latter leans in the direction of the more historied “English” style barleywine, showcasing endless layers of malted barley complexity, presented amidst an intensity of sweetness that, upon first tasting it as a somewhat novice beer drinker, caused a memorable double take. Having tried many more examples of style over the last 10-12 years the most common throughline I can note of the best examples is simply that of being “striking”, something memorable that redefined how I thought about the style and even the medium of beer as a whole.
Early in my professional career I began my attempts to create a barleywine of my own that would elicit a memorable reaction from those who partook of it. My leanings from the beginning were towards those of the English style, emphasizing the characteristics of malt flavor, caramel sweetness and layers of dark fruit. I remember how I used to write recipes back then, they were so incredibly over complicated and wrought with the enthusiasm of the excited amateur. I probably brewed every dark beer with 10-12 different specialty malts. This isn't to say that there’s no place for that because there still exist in our portfolio a handful of beers that have earned that complexity organically, but lacking then the experience I have now, these attempts were a perfect example of too much energy and not enough patience and practice. Unsurprisingly, the results of these early attempts were usually good, but not great. After many years of producing barleywines that just never quite scratched the itch, I eventually began to take steps back, to simplify and to refine. I started to learn more about where these flavors I assumed to understand so quickly when I was younger actually
emanated from and what I learned took me by surprise. My initial efforts had centered around ingredients, constant experimentation to find that missing piece of the puzzle that would deliver the flavor I was certain was just one recipe change away. As I had the opportunity to try more examples of style, to read the histories of their origin and process and to also find counterparts in cousins to the style such as dessert wine and vinegar, the picture began to form a bit more. As it turned out there were really just two ingredients that I had been seeking, time and oxygen. Typically thought of as the enemies of beer quality, barleywine has this beautiful relationship with both where the best examples of style seem only ever to improve as they interact with each other.
As luck would have it, I ended up making one of my first “striking” examples somewhat by accident. Fun fact, it was actually the first beer I ever brewed for New Image. When I made this beer in the summer of 2015 I was optimistically targeting a November opening for our olde town brewery. At the time we were contract brewing at Funkwerks in Fort Collins and to this day this brew apparently remains memorable, not for any reason other than what would turn out to be an absolute nightmare of a lauter. The grist was 80 percent Maris Otter and 20 percent malted rye and of course it had a lovely starting gravity target of 28 Plato. If you’ve ever worked on a brewhouse you already know why this was such a nightmare of a day. Fortunately for me I had the experienced hands of the brewers at Funkwerks to help me get through the brew day, long as it was, otherwise unscathed. The intention was always for this beer to go into barrels, though I did not intend at the time to open with a nearly 1 year old barrel aged beer on our opening draft list. This beer was named for its emphasis, Wood. While the version that was on our taps when we opened was certainly a nice beer and a unique offering for a new brewery to say the least, it had yet to be fully realized for its potential. Initially I filled 8 casks with this beer, emptying 2 for this initial release and another 2 at about 18 months for another release. The 18 month version was a step closer. I remember when we first tasted that one, I believe we released that for GABF in 2016 and it was a huge hit when it was released. That was also right about the time that we started to really blow up for hazy IPA and my whole world turned into a tornado of insane growth and expansion from our tiny brewpub in Arvada to a sizable distribution presence in the Colorado market. During that time, those last 4 casks were forgotten in the corner. They actually moved 2 times in those years, once from Fort Collins to Arvada, and from there to the facility that would become our production facility and where we recently opened our second taproom location in Wheat Ridge. It wasn’t until 2018 that I found these again, we were finally tidying up some of the forgotten corners of the brewery and found these casks laying in wait. I thought for sure there was no way they were still good, but we tapped them anyway. What came next was one of those acute moments of inspiration. As I lifted the glass to my nose I was immediately immersed in waves of dark fruit, layers of toffee and whisps of strong spirit. When I went to taste the beer the viscosity blew my mind, it was so dense, the alcohol intensity was insane and the fruit and toffee flavors from the nose absolutely stuck to the palate. When we pulled that beer out of the barrels it had been on the wood for 1000 days and it showed.
Releasing that beer was a wonderfully mixed emotional experience, the loss to evaporation (see Angels Share) had resulted in an abysmal yield. Of the 55 gallons that went in only 30 were returned. We had a handful of half barrels at the taproom but this beer was gone in the flash of an eye. What’s more is I had no other projects aging in barrels at the time to replace this, so I had this terrible realization in that moment that I’d be yet another 3 years older before I'd have the chance to recreate this illusive object that had been a goal of mine for maybe 6 years at the time. However, the pain of this realization taught me a lesson and in no year since this happened have I failed to fill barrels with barleywine. Before brewing this beer again and re-initiating the aging process, I took some time to reflect on where I hoped the next version would go. I did some research around aging beer and made sure that the next version would be built to handle the time that would be required to reach maturity. When the weather cooled again that winter and we had the time to brew big barleywines again, the next generation of Wood was conceived. This new version was much like its elder, composed mostly of Maris Otter base malt but with a touch of some medium crystal and chocolate rye that I had come to love over the prior few years. That generation went into barrels in early 2019 where it was left to rest until it had transformed. We brewed another generation of this beer in late 2019 and pulled nails on a single cask of the first in the beginning of 2020 just to see how things were going. As expected, the beer was lovely, but very much still in the beginning of its journey, and as we were collectively about to find out, it wasn't the only thing about to embark on a long journey…
Shortly after the second generation of barrels were filled, the insane whirlwind that has been the last, nearly 3 years began to unfold. Needless to say, these barrels yet again went into a corner where they got lost in time for a little while, only to be revisited about once per year when I happened to peruse the cellar again. Over the next 2 years these beers continued to transform and take on characteristics of age, an effect I could surely relate to as the events of those 2 years certainly added more than their weight in time to my own emotional sense of age. A lot happened over those 2 years and I won’t side track too much except to speak to the changes and experiences that would continue to inform where this whole story is meant to go. We all got locked inside, at first there was a sort of excitement to it and like many of you I opened a few more bottles from my cellar at the outset than maybe was wise in retrospect for what we hoped would be a couple weeks of Netflix and zoom calls. But 2 weeks turned into 2 months and then so on and so forth, you all know. I opened a lot of bottles from that cellar and quickly got burned out trying to finish 16 ounces of massive barrel aged monsters by myself. Somewhere along the way though I re-acquainted with a dessert wine that I had initially met during a study abroad in 2012, Port. This turned out to be a nice little indulgence for the winter of 2020 since I could serve only a few ounces at a time without committing to an entire bottle. This realization sparked a new thread of interest and I found myself exploring many different types of dessert wines ranging from the Iberian sherries and madieras to the European ice wines. For a minute I all but stopped drinking beer for the love of this new found format and found myself enjoying room temperature snifters of these luscious and intense wines through the coldest months of that winter. I was enamored by the layers of dark fruit, the caramel and toffee notes and the decidedly non-vinous flavors that had resulted from the oxidative aging these wines had undergone. I failed for many months to even see the parallels to the style I had nearly forgotten at this point, that was, until I went through the cellar again to select some barrels for our 5th anniversary beer.
Part 2 - An Idea Takes Form
Now early 2021, those casks I had so eagerly filled in 2019 were beginning to come of age again. I pulled some nails on the oldest among them to see how they were coming along and, again, I was hit with a wave of inspiration. Much like the day in 2018 when those aromas first came pouring forth from the glass, I was utterly enraptured. Though now 3 years later, I had a lot more context and noticed things I had missed the prior tasting. Having come fresh off of my dessert wine kick, I now saw the throughlines, the dark fruit, caramel, toffee and, interestingly, now seemingly wine-like characteristics of the beer in my hand. So began another wave of acute inspiration. I started to taste this beer side by side with some of the wines I had on my shelf and slowly but surely I began to center in on some key parities between them. Of the wines I had been exploring, there was one that stood out as reflecting the most back from what I adored in this barleywine, it was a bottle of solera sherry. I began to read about the history of sherry and its production process. The solera method was fascinating and such an incredible practice in patience and tradition. At the same time I meandered into the world of Madeira and became equally fascinated by the way in which this archaic historic practice of aging fortified wine in hot ship hulls had been forcibly re-imagined in a modern world of manufacturing. Amidst reading through countless brand auto-biographies, research papers and process guides, I discovered the estufagem process, a form of rapid oxidative aging created to mimic the original madeira aging process that occurred in ship hulls.
With all of these new ideas buzzing through my mind a new thread began to emerge. My initial journey began first and foremost with flavor as the centerpoint, but now a new layer had been added. I wanted to emulate the format that I had grown to love about dessert wine, creating something shelf stable that could be enjoyed on my own terms in a volume that made sense. The many harmonies from what I had tasted in my matured barleywine to what I had enjoyed from these sherries and madieras gave me the sense that this was possible if I could just figure out the right method. So in early 2021 we took some barleywine that was slated for barrels and diverted a portion of it to a special tank that was designed to expose beer to a controlled amount of oxygen and heat. The purpose of this tank was to emulate what was being done with the estufagem process for aging young madieras, the result of this process being a product that has taken on the aging qualities of something that would have taken 3-5 years to develop, achieved however, in a comparatively brief period of 2-3 months. I started this process without a fully formed idea for how everything would come together, but I was intrigued to see the result. About 3 months later I was able to test the initial result and, yet again, it was striking. One of the first things I noticed this time around was the color. The barleywine that had gone into this tank was a single malt beer brewed with a munich type malt from a producer in Colorado, Troubadour Maltings. It had gone into this tank around 10 SRM, a glowing golden color, but when I went to pour it off the sample port it came out at something like 25 SRM. I realized that I had noticed the same color change in the barrel aged variants, though it had been less noticeable and surprising on the 3 year timeline than it had in 3 months. I noticed a few other things immediately as well. This beer had legs, thin streams of liquid cascading down the sides of the glass every time the liquid was roused onto the walls of the glass. Upon taking in the aroma I noticed that all of those characteristics of age were already present, toffee, almond, honey, dried fig and dates were exploding from the glass. When I went to sip the beer the first major disparity from the barrel aged companion became evident. Where the barrel aged version had concentrated due to evaporation, this liquid had not. Because this beer was resting in a closed tank the water had no chance to evaporate and so while all of the oxidative characteristics were there, the viscosity remained constant. The mouthfeel was noticeably more similar to the sherries and madieras that I had been enjoying than the barleywines that had aged many years in barrels. You wouldn’t call this new beer dry, but certainly not thick or cloying either. It had a different kind of sweetness to it with more of the impact of ethanol being present in the resulting composition.
By the time I was trying this, I had already sourced a handful of sherry casks for extended aging and the entirety of what was pulled from this experimental batch was racked into those casks so that a much slower, solera process could begin, we’ll come back to those later. We had reserved another length of single malt barleywine from a second batch that was also sent into barrels that we used to refill the tank with a small amount of the liquid remaining from the prior batch and the process began again. That was about 6 months ago and we recently sampled the tank again to find that the rapid oxidative aging process had, yet again, yielded the impressive characteristics of age. This batch is, again, slated for barrels, but while we’re sending the majority of this forward to start its next phase in the journey we wanted to take a small amount off into bottles to share with you all so that you might join us in watching this transformation moving forward.
Part 3 - Introducing Estufa
Today we’re introducing to you our newest endeavor from this now 12 year journey, the first step in what is planned to be a 3 step process to produce the final product. This is Estufa. Short for estufagem and a nod to the process that inspired it. Estufa is the treated base that will go into barrels where it will age for a minimum of 3 years before it can be harvested as Solera. In order to create the Solera however, we must take a portion of liquid from our solera casks so that we can move the product forward from youngest casks to oldest, introducing the base, Estufa, into the youngest casks at each interval. These intermediary pulls will be removed and bottled as Madera, the wood aged version of Estufa, ranging from 1-2 years old. Once a solera stack has been harvested for the third time in the third year of its life, the product will have reached its final form, Solera. From then on, we will remove annual volumes of Solera from matured stacks, each Solera being named for the year that the stack was originally born.
In a further attempt to nod to the origins of this idea and process, we modeled the packaging for this beer after some of the old world examples of madeira and sherry. Each bottle is filled and closed by hand, the bottles are then hand painted, labeled and finished, one at a time. Each bottle will be unique, reflecting the imperfectness of the hands performing each step in the process. This beer is shelf stable, meaning that once opened it does not need to be consumed all at once, in fact, we discourage that. Upon opening, decant a few ounces and then re-seal the bottle, allow it to continue aging on the shelf and note the evolution for yourself. This method of service is, however, intended to go beyond simply offering a window into the evolution of the product. On too many occasions I’ve found myself staring at a bottle of beer that I’d love to open, yet I find that I'm reluctant to do so. The reason being that the bottle is usually expensive or hard to replace and I'm unsure of whether the occasion is right to enjoy it or if I even have the stamina to consume the bottle by myself. I end up waiting around for times when I'm around enough friends to warrant opening bottles like these, but to be honest, the older I get the less these occasions seem to come around. There’s of course the question of health too, these beers tend to be high in alcohol, high in sugar, consuming more than a couple ounces at a time isn't really helping me achieve the other goals I have around exercise or personal development. This format of service aims to address some of these realities while still allowing one to indulge in a modest amount on less fussed over occasions.
There was a whole hell of a lot that went into the process of getting to this point. Years of experiences, moments of acute inspiration and long spans of meandering and this is, yet again, only the beginning of yet another journey. I don’t yet even know the person that I will be when I get to introduce you to Madera, much less Solera or what that world will look like. Things seem to keep changing faster and faster these days. With that said, I hope that if you choose to partake of this beer that you’ll take a moment to slow down, to be present and to take in the entirety of the experience. I hope that you’ll find something about that moment striking and that the liquid in your glass can help to engrain that moment into your memory, to save that piece of time.