Barrel-Aged Beer Abounds at Saint Archer
Tusk & Grain showcases the bourbon-soaked aspirations of one of Miramar’s largest breweries
Tusk & Grain, Saint Archer's barrel-aged program, offers fans a lineup of dark, rich, and decadent beers. | Photo: Bruce Glassman
Lots of breweries make some kind of barrel-aged beer, and the vast majority of it is dark ale that’s been aged in bourbon barrels. Woodford Reserve, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, and Pappy Van Winkle are some of the most ubiquitous names stenciled onto the oaken vessels that rest in many San Diego brewery spaces. While many brewers do some amount of barrel aging, most employ only a few barrels here and there, and produce only small amounts of very limited beer.
A handful of San Diego breweries—Lost Abbey, AleSmith, Karl Strauss, Ballast Point, Coronado, and Stone, to name the biggies—have developed a large and steady barrel program that enables them to offer special barrel-aged releases just about all year long. Relatively recently, with the launch and expansion of their Tusk & Grain program, Saint Archer has fully jumped on the barrel-aging bandwagon and is now producing a significant volume of wood-influenced beer. Right now, the Saint Archer brewing team is focusing mostly on bourbon-barrel-aged beers, but they’ve started to expand to other types of barrels as well. So far they’ve worked with brandy, rye, and tequila barrels, but they’ve found that bourbon barrels are the most reliable in terms of quality and usability.
Saint Archer’s barrel program expanded alongside the more general success of the company as a whole. They’ve just celebrated their fifth anniversary and have enjoyed exponential growth since the brewery was founded. (When they first opened, they were producing about 4,000 barrels per year; today they’re producing over 40,000.) Most of the beers in the tap lineup are the straightforward, classic styles that have characterized the brewery’s core identity, but more eclectic types have also claimed their spots on the tasting board. In October, the company commissioned a five-barrel pilot system, which allows the brewing team to experiment and get creative; it also enables them to crank out a bunch of specialty beers and “out of the box” projects on a regular basis.
Making a commitment to a large barrel program is no simple or inexpensive feat; it means adding significant costs to production as well as a number of new processes to the brewery’s daily operation. Among the many special tasks required are filling, stacking, racking (transferring), taking inventory, tracking time in barrel, inspecting barrels, sealing leaky barrels, sampling, and blending. Each barrel must be monitored individually on a regular basis to ensure that the beer is maturing properly, that it’s free of any abnormality or contamination, and to determine exactly when the beer is ready to be bottled.
Greg Peters (who just recently took a position at North Park’s kombucha brewery, JuneShine) is credited as the guy who initially brought the barrel-aging bug to Saint Archer. Peters came to the company from Lost Abbey, where he ran the barrel program, but he also had extensive experience at Maui Brewing and at Pizza Port before that.
His love of big, dark beers aged in bourbon or brandy for long periods of time provided the guiding principles in conceiving, developing, and executing the Tusk & Grain program. “When you age a beer for a long time, it changes so much. Especially beers aged for at least twelve months,” he says. Peters’s experience at Lost Abbey also informed his palate a great deal, and, over the years, he’s used one or two Lost Abbey beers as his benchmarks for what a great barrel-aged beer should be. “Angel’s Share, for example—that’s a blend of barleywine and imperial stout aged in bourbon and brandy barrels—that beer is absolutely dynamite.”
The current lineup of Tusk & Grain beers is all deep, rich, malty elixirs that marry bourbon with heady flavors such as vanilla, hazelnut, coconut, and coffee. The bourbon-barrel-aged selections include a Belgian quad, a Wee Heavy with hazelnut and cacao nibs, and a coconut stout; there’s also a rye-barrel-aged stout with vanilla, and a number of barrel-aged blends—done once a year—that combine the unique qualities of various beers into one. These beers are as rich and decadent as they sound; all are intensely satisfying and expertly done.
The approach and goal of the Tusk & Grain program, as Peters envisions it, is not to reinvent the wheel but to take classic barrel-aged-style beers and make them better. Drinkability, too, is high on the list of priorities. Barrel-aged beers are often aged in “wet” barrels that still contain a significant amount of spirits; this can easily be overwhelming, not only in flavor but in alcohol content. The challenge in barrel aging is always to create a finished product that allows the barrel flavors to shine through without masking the original flavors of the beer.
As much as Peters has steered Tusk & Grain toward recipes that incorporate his favorite adjuncts, like coffee, vanilla, and hazelnut, the annual barrel blends are the ones that stand out most in his mind. These releases are straight blends—usually barleywine, imperial stout, and imperial porter—that don’t employ adjuncts of any kind. The aromas and flavors in the finished beer are purely the result of the blending and nothing else. “Those have been my favorite releases,” he admits. “We were really able to manipulate them to create exactly the aromas and the flavors we wanted, and there are no adjuncts. The beer will smell like chocolate and coffee and caramel and vanilla and coconut without having to add anything. I think that’s the pinnacle of barrel-aged beer.”
The Tusk & Grain releases are available in 25-ounce bottles at Saint Archer tasting rooms and select bottle shops, including certain BevMo and Trader Joe’s locations, and at specialty beer bars around San Diego.