Ever since 1992, when Goose Island’s former brewmaster Greg Hill allowed some imperial stout to mellow out in bourbon barrels, barrel-aging programs have been a staple of the craft brewing world. While assorted whiskey barrels remain classic, in more recent years, brewers have experimented with barrels that previously held red wine, aquavit, mezcal, maple syrup, cocktails like Boulevardiers, and even Tabasco sauce.
Now, Vista Brewing in Texas has teamed up with Desert Door, the first US-based sotol distillery, to age Dark Skies, a 4.9% ABV black pilsner in sotol barrels. Unlike better-known agave-based Mexican spirits such as tequila and mezcal, sotol is produced from a spiky, desert plant of the same name.
“I’d never even heard of sotol until I moved out here. I would describe it as an herbaceous, less smoky mezcal. It almost has an artichoke finish, if that makes sense,” says Pat Korn, brewmaster at Vista Brewing. “Desert Door started doing barrel-aged versions using American oak. It’s got those smoky, caramel qualities typically associated with bourbon, as well sweet, grapey notes like Cognac.”
It’s 2020 and pretty much everything has been done in beer, but I think this is something that’s one-of-a-kind.”
Korn may not have known much about sotol before, but it’s suddenly one of the most exciting parts of his brewing agenda. After the beverage director at the Fairmont Austin put the team at Vista Brewing in touch with the crew at Desert Door, the two resolved to find a way to collaborate. None of them quite knew what to expect when they threw a batch of Dark Skies into freshly emptied sotol barrels. After four months, Desert Skies emerged with 7.5% ABV and an intensely nuanced flavor profile.
“It’s really crazy how complex it’s gotten. It came out with all these rich Cognac flavors of tobacco, leather, and molasses,” Korn says. “It has that huge flavor, but the beer itself is just very light on the mouthfeel. It’s so big and full and it also just has the botanical notes that you get from sotol.”
Next week, he plans to taste a farmhouse saison that has been aging in sotol barrels for the past six months. For the best results, the barrels need to be filled with beer within a few hours of being emptied. Although orchestrating the timing is tricky, Korn believes the results are worth it.
“I’ve been brewing for 25 years and it’s rare that something new comes along,” Korn says. “I love me a good bourbon barrel-aged stout, but a lot of them are very similar. It’s 2020 and pretty much everything has been done in beer, but I think this is something that’s one-of-a-kind.”