Today, seemingly every craft brewery has a Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels. The style has become an essential part of every year’s beer lineup. Without a big bourbon barrel ale, your release calendar can feel a little like a baseball team taking the field without a catcher.
But while bourbon barrel-aged beers show no sign of losing popularity, this year could be the year tequila barrel-aged beers break out. Here’s a report from the front lines of a beermaker leading the agave-scented charge, complete with a few beers you need to pick up to start appreciating the style.
We spoke to Andy Parker, the Barrel Wrangler for Avery, the venerable craft brewery in Boulder, Colorado. He’s spearheading Avery’s effort to release two different tequila barrel-aged beers in 2017. He’s forgotten more about barrel-aging than most beer geeks will ever know, so I sat down with him to talk about his journey into creating these unique beers.
First things first: tequila barrels were bourbon barrels in another life. “Every tequila barrel I’ve ever seen either has a Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, or Heaven Hill stamp on it,” Parker says of their secret past.
Every tequila barrel I’ve ever seen either has a Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, or Heaven Hill stamp on it.”
The barrels are first used for bourbon, and then the distillery sells them to different companies. Among them: Scottish distilleries so they can make everyone’s favorite brown water from across the water, and American breweries to make those barrel-aged stouts no one can get enough of.
They’ll also make their way to the South of the border so that they can be used by tequila producers. And when we say so they can be used, we mean seriously used. “Tequila and rum barrels have been sitting down by the equator and getting the crap kicked out of them for years and years,” Parker notes. “They’re filled and refilled. They’re a lot more challenging to work with, and they tend to leak a lot more.”
Because oxygen is the enemy when a brewery is trying to age beer in a barrel, a leak can seriously kill a beer’s flavor. That ends up being a standard occupational hazard for a brewery when they decide to do tequila barrel-aging.
There are multiple reasons why you don’t see tequila barrel-aged beers lining the shelves of your local beer shop. “I tried to get tequila barrels for a while,” Parker explains. “But it’s tough because you’re dealing with international shipping. It’s a long way to ship from Mexico, and a lot of weird stuff can happen in customs.”
Avery caught a break when one of their employees befriended the owners of the local tequila makers at Suerte. (While the company’s based in Boulder, the good stuff is still made in Jalisco.) What started as an experiment by Avery to test aging different beer styles in four Suerte tequila barrels has turned into a 200 barrel a year habit.
For other breweries, sourcing these barrels is difficult and expensive – and international shipping ain’t cheap. Even for a brewer with a passion for tequila, not everyone is lucky enough to have Suerte hooking them up. And once they do get them, those dang leaks are not making anyone’s job any easier.
Parker is helping Avery release two new tequila barrel-aged beers this year as a sophomore effort in their tequila program. Despite that fact, when I asked him if he thought that program could ever be as popular as their bourbon barrel-aged beers, he didn’t think so.
“Tequila is polarizing,” he says. “If you ask the people in this taproom if they like it, a third will say no. Bourbon has [notes like] caramel, vanilla, sweet, and a little oak. That’s all pleasant. But tequila might taste medicinal or like a dill pickle. Even with good tequilas, there is no mistaking that flavor. That is tequila!”
It’s certainly an acquired taste. But it’s not a stretch to think that it could gain traction.
Look at the worldwide popularity of Scotch – all the peat and smoke don’t seem to have dampened people’s enthusiasm. And while taking a tequila shot years ago felt like a dare, there are so many premium reposados, añejo, and blancos on the market that there is proof of lusty demand. Hell, people now know the difference between tequilas in those three categories!
And a beer geek is nothing if not adventurous.”
For any true beer nerd, tasting breweries' experiments with different beer styles in tequila barrels opens them up to new flavors in their pint glass. And a beer geek is nothing if not adventurous.
While you might be tempted to age these like many do to bourbon barrel-aged stouts, Parker recommends drinking Avery’s as soon as you buy it. Brewers do all the work for you with regards to aging, so it’s up to you to do the drinking. Granted, he also said you’re free to age it if that’s your thing, but come on. Drink up! Life is short!
Here are a few tequila barrel-aged beers that we think are worth seeking out.
The Lost Abbey Agave Maria
Strong ale, 13.5%
Initially released in 2014, this is considered one of the finer tequila barrel-aged beers out there. Considering it’s Lost Abbey we’re talking about, are you surprised? Expect “black pepper, sweet sugar, oatmeal, and oak, with an earthy, bitter smoked chocolate on the finish” according to the website. Lost Abbey followed that up with a new tequila barrel-aged sour, Madonna and Child, in late 2016. Both are worth picking up.
Upslope Tequila Aged Barleywine
A brand new offering from the Boulder beermakers, this barleywine is aged for 11 months in Dulce Vida añejo tequila barrels. Since oak and bourbon flavors are also present inside the brewery’s tall-as-hell can, it should appeal to anyone nervous about crossing over from bourbon barrel-aged beers into something a little different.
Almanac Tequila Barrel Noir
American Stout, 10%
The San Francisco brewery took everyone’s favorite base beer from the bourbon barrel-aging process (the aforementioned American stout) and found out what happens when you mix it with a tequila barrel. All good things, obviously. The brewery says to get ready for tequila smoke, oak, and vanilla flavors. It also says to pair it with a San Francisco-style super burrito. But don’t burritos go perfectly with every liquid on planet Earth?
Avery Tequilacerbus Tequila Barrel-Aged Sour
While this beer isn’t out yet (and doesn’t even have a name as of this moment), it should be on shelves in 25 states by March. Considering Avery’s previous home run with tequila barrel-aged beer releases in Fortuna and Fiel al Estilo, this is worth getting psyched about. If you love sours and tequila flavors, trust us – you’re gonna flip.