For hundreds of years, well into the 20th century, all beer was stored in wooden barrels, usually oak because of its sturdiness and waterproof quality. Industrialization of the brewing industry led to the advent of metal fermentation and conditioning tanks, glass bottles, and eventually aluminum cans and kegs. Barrels all but disappeared from the brewing industry except in a few rare cases in the UK. It made sense – after all, hygiene and quality control standards are extremely important to breweries, and there is no way to keep wooden vessels as clean as metal ones.
In the past, brewers aimed to keep wood flavours from barrels out of their beer, unlike winemakers who desired its maturing effect on their wines. Brewers neutralized it in barrels with acid washes or by using pitch, which also helped to limit leakage. Now, barrel aging has returned to the craft beer industry, but the point is not to avoid wood flavours, but rather to add these often complex flavours to beers.
You can get around the cost and space requirements of barrels by adding oak chips or spirals to the beer as part of the brewing process. This is referred to as “oak aging” rather than “barrel aging.” Oak-aging can impart a variety of flavours in beers, including vanilla, toasted coconut, caramel, burnt sugar, bitter almond, spice and just plain old woodiness. Oak tannins can contribute significantly to mouth feel as well.
Howe Sound Brewing used medium toasted American oak along with smoky peated malt in this scotch ale, which they brewed with Robbie Burns Day in mind (the name comes from Burns’ famous poem, “To a Mouse”). Scotch ales, by definition, do not require peated malts, but many brewers like to use them for their smoky, scotch whiskey character, and that’s definitely the case here. The addition of oak chips adds another layer of complexity to this beer, although it’s not entire welcome in my opinion.
I should admit that I am not a big fan of oak aging in beers—at least, I haven’t tasted one I have really liked yet. To me, the flavours imparted from oak chips are much stronger and harsher than they are in barrel-aged beers, but that also might be because the barrel-aged beers I’ve enjoyed involved barrels that had been used by wineries or bourbon distilleries already, which likely softened their oak flavours quite a bit.
Wee Beastie poured dark reddish-brown with a creamy off-white head of foam. The aroma was subtly peaty and slightly smoky. Given that subtleness, I found the first sip quite shocking: the oak flavours were prominent and potent, and alongside, the smoky peatiness made for a discordant combination. I did notice my palate “relax” a bit after a few more sips, though, and after that my enjoyment improved considerably. Then I was able to discern some specific oak notes of vanilla and caramel, along with a certain bourbon-y character. The qualities I like in scotch ales (creamy, sweet maltiness) were there but quite overwhelmed by the oak and peat.
I reiterate that I am not a big fan of oak-aged beers, but I said the same thing about sour beers a few years ago and I have certainly learned to enjoy many of those now, so who knows, maybe I will be singing a different tune next year. In any case, I do think that it can be handled with more subtlety than it was here, but maybe some oak aficionados will disagree with me. Try it for yourself and see what you think—and please do let me know in the comments section below if you think I am missing the boat.
Rating (out of 5 beer mugs): ½
Side note: I’m not going to do formal reviews here, but I want to mention a few other Howe Sound beers that I love: Three Beavers Imperial Red Ale (comparable with the incredible Siren Red Ale from Lighthouse), Pothole Filler Imperial Stout, and Total Eclipse of the Hop Imperial IPA. When you add King Heffy to that list, it’s clear Howe Sound is “King of the Imperials” in BC.
Availability: Private liquor stores in the lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, and at the brewpub/inn in Squamish (which, by the way, is a great getaway spot just an hour from Vancouver with room rates under $100).