Enter the Brew-Tang Part I: Inside Brooklyn Brewery’s Ghost Bottles and Barrel-Aging Chamber

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I ain’t afraid of no ghost. I ain’t afraid of no Ghost Bottle, neither. While I prove the former assertion nightly by watching episodes of The Real Ghostbusters on my iPad before bedtime, my first demonstration of the latter was attending an installment of Brooklyn Brewery’s Dinner Party series last September.

A stationary contrast to The Mash, an annual worldwide tour of weeklong festivals, Dinner Party is headquartered monthly at Humboldt and Jackson in Williamsburg. This provides a base for Brooklyn Brewery’s chef, Andrew Gerson, to showcase beer-paired dishes “inspired by the unique ingredients and talented producers found in our local community.” The first dinner partnered Gerson with Momofuku Culinary Lab’s Kaizen Trading Company, and the second with Brooklyn Grange. I attended the third, which celebrated a milestone at the brewery: Garrett Oliver’s 20th anniversary as brewmaster.

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Oliver, who started his beercareer at the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company in 1989, has propelled Brooklyn to the country’s ninth-largest craft brewery. He is one of the industry’s most erudite figures, exhibiting his expertise not only as a brewmaster, but as an author and editor. His style is informed by tradition, an education that started during a trip to England in 1983, and is defined by progression, an urge to channel the accumulated weight of personal history into something new. An example exhibiting the latter is the brewery’s Ghost Bottle series.

Image by Ethan Meyer

Ghost Bottles aren’t beers infused with the phantasmal essence of nightmarish creatures; they are complex and experimental brews—some attached to evolving concepts, some fermented with multiple yeasts, some aged in bourbon barrels for over three years—produced in small amounts and unavailable to purchase, only surfacing in hand-labeled 750-milliliter bottles to sample at select events. The project launched unknowingly in 2007 with a new bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout: Black Ops.

“[Black Ops] was not on the brewing schedule,” Oliver told First We Feast in 2013. “We made the beer, [put it in] the bourbon barrels, and hid it under tarps in the warehouse… We didn’t release it, but everybody who worked at the brewery got a case at Christmastime.”

Brooklyn now produces Black Ops commercially, and the bold beast has become one of the brewery’s most coveted liquids. Its release didn’t quench Oliver’s thirst for experimentation, however, this proven by his continued Ghosting. At the third Dinner Party, attendees were treated to six more of these unique apparitions (their total is unknown). Whether these beers ever exist in the retail realm does not debase their quality; they were all distinctive and tasty. They represent something more than distinction and tastiness, though: the proof of the brewery’s committed quest for knowledge within the unknown.

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After mingling at Humboldt and Jackson’s bar with a pour of the first beer, Sylvanus, a light and refreshing Belgian-style ale aged in bourbon barrels with spruce fronds (foraged from the “tri-state area,” according to a server), guests relocated to the backroom for five more Ghosts paired with Gerson-cooked dishes. The first course presented Gambit, a cognac-barreled version of Brooklyn’s Sorachi Ace matured with the company of blackberries. Oliver’s explanation of the saison’s transformation, now blanketed by layers of funk and berryness, perfectly encapsulated the series’ all-around spontaneity: “One of the cognac barrels was leaking so we decided to stuff the top with blackberries as a cap and let it ferment naturally for six weeks. This is the result.”

Gambit was followed by two wholly different beers developed from the same base: Local 1, described by Oliver as “the perfect canvas to paint on.” While I loved the smokiness and salinity of San Luis Del Rio, Local 1 aged in Del Maguey mezcal barrels, I preferred the dryness and sourpower of Percival. An evolution of another Ghost, Crochet Rouge, or Local 1 aged in bourbon barrels with different varieties of lees (leftover sediment from a wine’s fermentation) from Red Hook Winery, Percival was infused with Chardonnay lees and bourbonized since 2011. “The lees are filled with a lot of wild yeast strains that add complexity to the beer as it sits in the barrel,” Oliver said.

The primary obstacle preventing the “existence” of most Ghost Bottles, Oliver told me, are scarce materials. There were only enough cognac barrels to make 300 liters of Gambit, for example, hardly enough to satisy a market clamoring more than ever for complex beers composed with intrigue and innovation.

Brooklyn has slowly started to transform some Ghosts into limited commercial releases, however, with a new bottle-only series called Brooklyn Quarterly Experiment (BQE). While one of the four yearly BQE releases will be Black Ops, the other three installments will be one-off beers, coinciding with Ghost’s ephemeral nature. The first, released last January, was Wild Streak, a Belgian-style golden ale aged in bourbon barrels, then bottled and re-fermented with Champagne yeast and Brettanomyces (these still-living organisms help continue the beer’s development). The latest, arriving this week, was poured during the dinner’s fourth course: K Is For Kriek.

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“The name is a play on how it’s not a standard Belgian kriek at all,” Oliver said in September, accurately describing this Americanized—or Brooklynized—interpretation of a traditional lambic. Its creation involved aging the brewery’s Local 2 with sour cherries in Four Roses bourbon barrels, then re-fermenting the beer, again, with Champagne yeast and Brettanomyces once bottled. Can we expect a second batch of this dark and deliciously tart experiment? It’s doubtful. “[I]t’s just a ridiculous amount of handwork to turn out that beer,” he said.

After the dinner last September, as each guest departed with a complimentary bottle of Black Chocolate Stout from 2013, I asked Oliver for his summation of the Ghost Bottle series. He stood silent for a few seconds before starting: “There was a time when I could have went two ways. I could have been the musician that just went out there and played his greatest hits for everyone, or I could be the one that still went out and experimented with my guitar and made new music.” He didn’t need to disclose which of the two paths he chose; the answer is obvious.

It’s almost the end of January now, and even months later, the Dinner Party’s unique beers seem permanently ingrained in my palate. We know the practice of barrel-aging is not new; beer was stored and aged in wooden barrels for centuries before Prohibition. There is a great renaissance occurring now, though, and according to a story in the Wall Street Journal last August, “New York area brewers are among the leading-edge wood-barrel users.”

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While almost every brewery in New York City, in some form, is tinkering with hand-me-down containers that once held Scotch, Sauvignon Blanc, and other alcoholic liquids (and attempting to tame unpredictable yeasts within their quarters), Brooklyn Brewery is the only one in the five boroughs with a facility dedicated to it—at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with over 2,000 barrels managed by Molly Browning. This is the birthplace of most Ghost Bottles, the nest of the brewery’s future.

I asked Brooklyn for a tour of the space to learn more from Oliver and Browning about barrel-aging beers, about achieving a synergy of complexity and drinkability in the midst of unpredictability, and they invited me to join the barreling of a future BQE release (hints: whiskey and coffee). Before this education, our story’s second part, occurs, though, K Is For Kriek will deservedly hog the quarterly spotlight, starting tonight at Beer Culture.

Are you going? I am; I ain’t afraid of no Ghost.

Enter the Brew-Tang Part II: Coming Soon

All photos by Molly Cichy

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