Milwaukee’s Sprecher Brewery recently released a pair of bourbon barrel aged beers, Commando, a Scotch-style Ale, and Czar, a Russian Imperial Stout, joining a handful of other barrel aged beers in the Milwaukee area.
Each beer spent two years slowly maturing in bourbon barrels before being carbonated and released in 12 oz bottles in mid-January.
Notably delicious, subtle, and complex, I’ve recently spent a few nights by the fire happily tasting and exploring the flavors of these beers. Commando scents of esters, smoke, and bourbon, which transforms on the palate into dark, dried fruits, a hint of phenols, and a deep, caramelly, maltiness. Czar exhibits a complex, layered maltiness, vanilla, subtle roastiness, anise, the smooth flavors of bourbon, and a barely-detectable hint of umami.
Yet more and more I’ve been taken by an insight that struck me as I chatted with Jesse Mix and brewmaster Craig Burge at Sprecher’s North Shore taproom.
Commando and Czar, while rare — they’re only released every two years — afford drinkers an opportunity even more singular than their release: the chance to explore just exactly how barrel aging transforms a beer. Put another way, at no other brewery in Milwaukee can you taste, side-by-side, a beer both before and after barrel-aging. Yet at Sprecher, you can taste not just one, but two such beers.
This is because both Czar and Commando began not as recipes specifically formulated for barrel aging, but as the Piper’s Scotch Ale and the Russian Imperial Stout that Sprecher releases every winter.
As Jesse poured side-by-side tastes, setting Commando next to Pipers, and Czar next to the Russian Imperial, I was immediately struck by this quintessentially Sprecher moment.
See, when brewing a beer for barrel aging, many breweries will reach for adjuncts and additives — rare caramel malts, cacao nibs, vanilla, even coconut — looking to create a base-layer of complexity to the beer they’ll age, but not Sprecher.
Sprecher is a brewery that finds the profound in the simple, the sublime in the everyday. And that’s part of the magic of beer: transforming yeast, water, malt, and hops — ingredients that are essential, basic, ordinary — into something wholly new and delectable.
This same ethos guides Sprecher in their barrel aging process.
Commando is their Scotch-Ale, but aged in bourbon barrels. Czar is their Russian Imperial Ale, but aged in bourbon barrels. The magical, alchemical moment comes when you taste these beers directly next to their barrel-aged versions and you realize that through barrel aging the beer has become something wholly new, different, and inexorably itself.
Commando doesn’t taste like Pipers plus bourbon barrel. Czar doesn’t taste like Russian Imperial plus bourbon barrel. After two years in 9 year old, American Oak, Bourbon barrels, both beers have become something new.
This is due, in part to a base-complexity which defines each beer.
The Russian Imperial that forms the base of Czar is brewed with 8 different malts, many of which are caramel malts, and four kinds of hops. Mashed for attenuation, brewer Craig also borrows a page from his Belgian colleagues, adding a dose of candi sugar, which layers in dark fruity flavors and increases gravity while lightening body, an addition which makes sense for a beer that’s 20 Plato. A much longer-than-average boil in Sprecher’s gas-fired kettles then concentrates the wort and deepens the beer’s caramel flavors. Added to this a hop schedule of herbal, earthy, spicy hops that brings the beer’s bitterness right up to the flavor threshold and intertwines with it’s slight roastiness.
Pipers Scotch Ale, which is the base of Commando, utilizes seven different malts, one of which is a peated malt that Baird smokes to 28 phenols. Mashed for body, and hopped using a single American hop variety, Pipers also benefits from the dark-fruit flavors of candi syrup Sprecher’s trademark kettle caramelization. While opinion on the subject of smoked malt in Scotch-style ales varies, traditionally Scottish beers gained any peaty flavors from their source water, not from peat-smoked malts, and were not traditionally smokier than other beers. With the maltiness and subdued esters of a Scotch yeast balanced more by the peated malt than the hops, Pipers is a classic take on a Scotch Ale.
Already delicious, these beers undergo a subdued yet complete transformation.
Commando emerges from the barrel with more notes of dates and plums, and, while it retains some smokiness, the flavor is more is clove-y phenols that blend with the oak tannins, than of bright smoke. Layer of layer of caramel, interwoven with bourbon and perhaps a dash of vanilla, Commando is a dark interweave of flavors, while Pipers is brighter, somewhat fruitier, layering a breath of smoke onto malts.
Czar develops even more depth during it’s two years in the barrel than was present in the original Russian Imperial Stout before aging. Adding more anise, a dash of vanilla, and a wonderful hint of soy to the complex amalgam of malts, roastiness, and herbal hops that defines the Russian Imperial Stout, Czar completes the impossible feat of becoming richer and more complex than its origin beer.
A few cases of Commando and Czar Sprecher’s Glendale can still be taproom and should be available for another week or two. But when you go grab some, make sure to pick up a bottle of Sprecher’s Russian Imperial Stout and a bottle of Piper’s Scotch Ale too. Drinking these beers side by side makes for one of the most unique experiences in Milwaukee’s craft beer scene.