To nail a style or recipe time and time again is a sublime act for a brewer, but there’s also the excitement that comes with forging a new path when it comes to beer. The desire to innovate runs deep among brewers, and for Keigan Knee of Modist Brewing Co. (Minneapolis, Minnesota), it was about 4 years ago that he started thinking about a new style of beer.
“I wanted to explore how close you could get a beer to a spirit without actually distilling and staying within the legal parameters of our brewing license,” he says. So, his mind drifted to cocktails, specifically the Old Fashioned, the bourbon-based bar staple made by muddling sugar with bitters, then adding bourbon and a twist of citrus rind.
As it happens, there’s a cocktail bar down the street from the brewery, Parlor Bar, which is celebrated for its bar program and especially its Old Fashioned. Knee reached out and started a dialogue and soon discovered that the bar could get its hands on some barrels from Kentucky-based Knob Creek, specifically some 11- to 14-year-old select barrels.
“But rather than just do another bourbon-barrel stout, we wanted to do something different, to really make a new style and to have something that represented the spirit,” Knee says. The category, in his mind, is called “Brewed Spirit.”
To create a beer that was supposed to represent bourbon, he again went to Knob Creek and decided to make a beer using the grain bill of the Kentucky spirit. This meant 72 percent of the mash was corn, and the rest was rounded out by wheat and barley. It helps that the brewery has a mash-filter system that mechanically separates the wort from the spent grains with pressure and cloth filters. It makes possible brewing with a grain bill such as this one, which would otherwise give a brewer nightmares about stuck mashes and hours-long lauters.
“We ran that off, filled a tank, and then in fermentation added Mexican corn sugar, known as piloncillo,” he says. The initial result was an 8 percent ABV beer, and the brewers kept refermenting the beer, feeding it twice a day. An ale yeast that can handle high alcohol was selected to finish out the recipe.
“It just kept going up, and we needed to rouse it to get the diacetyl out and to keep an eye on the yeast because it was going to be stressed no matter what,” Knee says. The beer spent 2 months in stainless and then was transferred to the barrels where, after an additional 9 months, it was tasting “just right.”
The brewery brewed ten barrels and yielded eight barrels. They named it Boozehound and are promoting it as a barrel-aged Old-Fashioned ale. It was tapped a few weeks ago and costs $12 for a 4-ounce pour of the 20 percent ABV beer. It’s served on tap (the brewery decided not to bottle this batch) with, appropriately, a splash of bitters and an orange-peel garnish.
“Overall, the idea is to get inspired with new beers and to see where we can go with ‘brewed spirits,’” Knee says. “It’s not distilled, and this isn’t a beer that is about how high an ABV can go. It’s about creating a beer that is as close to a traditional cocktail or spirit while still being a beer. There are a lot of places we can go with this style.”