In the summer, flocks of tourists descend into the beach town of St. Joseph, Michigan. Just a two-hour ride from Chicago, thousands come to the beach town on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan to ride the refurbished carousel and walk the pavilion at Silver Beach. For the past two summers, part of the experience also included locally-crafted beer from Silver Harbor Brewing Company. This year, tourists should expect the traffic at the taproom to be a little more congested.
When a beer returns from a highly-regarded beer competition with a gold medal wrapped around its neck, it’s sure to pique some interest. But what happens when a beer achieves a veritable triple crown and takes gold at the U.S. Open, the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup?
“It was a blessing and a curse for the business,” said brewmaster and co-owner Christian Cook. “After GABF, there was a ton of phone calls from people in different states trying to get beer shipped out to them. Obviously, we can’t do that, so it drew a bunch more taproom visits.”
Silver Harbor was awarded the top prize at all three events for its English-style barleywine named Shipfaced.
“I didn’t believe it,” Cook said of the first win. “To hear our name being called at three of the biggest beer competitions among some of the best brewers in the world, it was surreal. I’m extremely honored to win anything, but especially on this level of the best brewers in the world. It’s huge.”
The beer began as a one-off. Originally brewed to commemorate Silver Harbor’s first anniversary in 2017, Cook knew he knew he wanted to brew something “big, bold, and out there.” As a lover of malt-forward beers, a barleywine seemed like an obvious choice.
“At that time, barleywine was a style we hadn’t done yet, and we wanted something that would be something upwards of 12% [ABV], so that we could get some of that ‘wow’ factor.”
I hate brewing it. I’m there all day long.”
Despite the phrase “barleywine is life,” or #BIL, entering the über beer-geek lexicon, it remains a polarizing style of beer, with naysayers obstinately decrying a beer style that’s “not for them” and advocates extolling its nuances and complexities. If the hardware isn’t enough to sway drinkers to the darkside, the process of making a barleywine such as Shipfaced might.
“It’s pretty intense,” Cook said about the brewing process, which starts with a seven-malt bill boiled for four hours. “I hate brewing it. I’m there all day long, but the boil is what makes it. You get real extreme kettle caramelization. Obviously, to get it to 12.6% you need a lot of sugar in there, so that it raises the starting gravity quite a bit by evaporating water off.”
Second, there’s an addition of grains of paradise in the final five minutes of the boil so, according to Cook, “aromatics-wise, you get more of those fruity aromas that plays well with the esters that are in the beer.”
The last step is aging.
“We play around with it still to try to determine what the best humidity and temperature and things like that are for the beer, but we cellar age it in the bottles for four months,” Cook said. We won’t release it until it’s at least at that four-month mark when the alcohol flavor mellows out and the flavors all meld together.”
The final product is, in fact, gold medal worthy. It’s deep and complex with rich caramel notes. The lack of hops and combination of malts produces a dark fruit, figgy, and subtle cherry flavor. It’s chewy, like you need a fork and knife to drink it. At the bottom third of the beer, as it warms, it’s almost like a fine sherry.
Due to the success of Shipfaced, Silver Harbor plans now to release the beer each April as part of their anniversary celebration. Cook said they also increased production after GABF to meet the upcoming summer demand and thinks it’ll last until late July or August.
As for the name, a Silver Harbor Mug Club member suggested it. Cook put the name away with a laugh, but remembered it as plans for the barleywine began.
“When we came up with the recipe, and it was going to be around 12%, I remembered [the suggestion], and I knew I had the perfect name,” he said. “We usually tell people to split the beer in half or make sure you have a ride home because it’s a heavy beer.”