Exploring the Intersection of Beer and Whiskey

By: Becky Garrison

As James Saxon of London based Compass Box observes, historically, distilleries often grew out of breweries or operated alongside them with the union of beer and whisky rooted in process. “Until the 1950s and 1960s, many distilleries would even use yeast cultured and maintained within breweries to ferment their wort. We are starting to see more distilleries re-introduce brewers’ yeast for the flavor impact it can have.”

  Also, Saxon finds the role of the malt recipe or ‘mash bill’ for brewers to be fascinating. “I see the balancing of pale, crystal and chocolate malts to drive flavor and mouthfeel in beer as related to how we introduce different degrees of toasting and charring to the casks we use for whisky maturation.” In his estimation, both drinks benefit from the blender’s ethos. “When enjoyed together, you can experience the skillful layering of texture and flavor in new ways, discovering hidden qualities in the beer and surprising flavors in the whisky.”

  StormBreaker Brewing, a Portland, Oregon based brewpub known for offering whiskey beer pairings, launched Brewstillery in 2014 as a way of showcasing the range of beer and spirit pairings possible among Pacific Northwest brewers and distillers. Traditionally, this festival WAS held in February to commemorate the month when StormBreaker launched. This event featured 20 brewers and distillers paired together along live music and special food offerings with proceeds going to support the local charity Dollar for Portland. (While the festival was on hold due to Covid, StormBreaker hopes to launch the festival again in 2022.)

  When Sebastian Dejens, owner, Stone Barn Brandyworks in Portland, OR was invited to the first Brewstillery, he found this event represented a wonderful opportunity to pair up with some brewers for some creativity and discovery.  Three years into this festival, he told StormBreaker founders

Dan Malech and Rob Lutz that he would buy mash from them if they came up with a window of opportunity.

  For a few days the entire brewing capacity focused on producing roughly 150 gallons of beer. Dejens picked up this beer using a 275-gallon tote placed on the back of his truck that he filled from the tank.  Malech describes their brewing process for this particular beer. “We took our Red and bumped up the grain bill and the kettle hop additions for an intense hoppiness, complemented by a spicy dryness from the rye, but balanced nicely by malty caramel flavors. After fermentation we got hop crazy and dry hopped this beer with 3 lbs/bbl for an explosion of tropical fruit and a citrus nose.” Malech and Lutz named this beer “Good Not Great” (ABV: 8% IBU: 76) which went on to receive a gold medal in the 2020 World Beer Cup Awards in the Imperial Red Ale category.

  In 2020, Dejens released his first whiskey made from this beer. The name of this 92-proof whiskey Barnstormer is a mashup of the names Stone Barn and StormBreaker, with the whimsical label produced by StormBreaker’s label designer. This whiskey had a malty brown sugar sweetness with a nutty finish. Since this initial venture, Dejens continued to collaborate with StormBreaker each year on producing a barrel of whiskey using StormBreaker’s beer. In 2020, Dejens made two barrels as Stormbreaker had increased their barrel capacity. “There needs to be an element of space in the process. You’re making this for three to five years down the road, and you’re just hoping it’s all going to turn out,” Dejens reflected.

  Joshua M. Bernstein, a Brooklyn-based beer, spirits, food and travel journalist, parses the similarity between beer and whiskey from a production standpoint. “Beer and whiskey share a common starting point: grains are simmered to make a sugar-rich broth on which yeast feast, creating alcohol. Typically, a major difference is that distilleries are usually concerned with getting the most sugars (read: potential alcohol) from their grains, then letting the barrels contribute the lion’s share of flavor and aroma. Contrasting that, breweries use a full suite of grains, even darker-roasted ones that contribute fewer fermentable sugars. But now we’re seeing distilleries such as Westland Distilling in Seattle, WA take a craft brewer’s approach to grain selection, building big flavors with any and all grains before the distillates touch wood.”

Craft Brewers Turned

Single Malt Whiskey Distillers

  When Jason Parker, former head brewer with the Seattle based Pike Brewing Company, decided to co-found Copperworks Distilling with Micah Nutt, they knew they couldn’t compete with those established distilleries known for distilling spirits via traditional methods. Their process resulted in products with consistent flavor profiles that have been recognized by consumers for hundreds of years.

  So, they wondered what would happen if they were to distill high-quality beer. “We left the hops out of the beer to keep out the bitterness, and then distilled the beer into vodka, gin, and whiskey,” Parker noted.

  Positive customer feedback led Parker and Nutt to conclude they could produce quality spirits without following traditional distilling techniques. For example, brewers turned distillers such as Parker and Christian Krogstad, founder of House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon, use yeasts and grains that are utilized by many craft brewers but not found in spirits produced by traditional distillers.

  Also, Copperworks is one of the few distilleries that produces a sanitary fermentation—the way breweries do—by boiling their wash for an hour. This process drives off some of the water thereby concentrating the sugar content and sanitizes the wash. When fermented with brewer’s yeast, this produces clean fruity and floral flavors, rather than the sour flavors produced by traditional methods. “All brewers know that boiling their wash kills bacteria and wild yeasts and results in a beer that tastes better and lasts longer. But if you do this for a distilled spirit, it results in new flavors and aromas, unlike the tastes of traditional spirits.” In addition, they leave unfermented sugars in their fermenters, which when distilled and barreled, produces a sense of sweetness in their spirits that’s more commonly associated with craft beers.

Beer and Whiskey Pairings  

  In Parker’s estimation, hops can be so dominant in beer that one cannot discern the beer’s base malt flavor. Hence, his preference when pairing whiskey and beer is to drink a beer low enough in hops so that he can taste the malt. “If I’m lucky enough, I can drink the beer followed by the whiskey being made from this beer,” he states. In particular, Parker loves beer cocktails such as those made at the Seattle based Pike Brewing Company’s seafood restaurant Tankard & Tun which features cocktails made with Pike Brewing’s beer and Copperworks spirits. Beer can provide the sparkling effervescence in cocktails normally obtained via Prosecco or carbonated water along with some sweetness and spice (hops). Parker notes that these cocktails aren’t often on most cocktail menus as this isn’t a skill set practiced by most bartenders. “The challenge is to use a small enough amount of beer to turn it into an effervescent cocktail without having it become a boozy beer,” he opines.

  Saxon is always inclined to start with pale ales and IPAs for their whiskies. “Many of our products have a creamy character thanks to American oak maturation and this mellows the hoppy bite of the beer. Equally, the citrus and tropical flavors of these brews can pull out the subtle fruit notes concealed within the whiskies we use.” Among their favorite pairings included The Spice Tree with a brown ale from the Kernel Brewery, based – like us – in London that was malty, toffee-sweet and richly nutty all at once. So flavorsome and just deliciously pleasurable. “Definitely a boilermaker for the autumn,” Saxon mused. 

  Wanderback (Hood River, OR) chief whiskey maker, Phil Downer prefer their malt forward whiskey paired with a brown ale, porter, or stout. “The malted barley we use for our whiskey are similar to the malts used to make these beers, so they are an easy pairing.  I should generally pair a lighter beer like a pilsner or lager with a lighter whiskey, like a Crown Royal Rye or lighter bourbon.” A purist Downer prefers to sample beer and whiskey separately. “I like them usually on their own to appreciate all the fun things going on in each.”

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