Ozark Beer’s best-known beer—the bourbon barrel–aged double cream stout known as BDCS—might also be the business manager’s biggest headache.
“It’s a terrifying process,” says Lacie Bray, Ozark’s cofounder, about the barrel-aging. “Because when you do it that way, it doesn’t taste good for a very long time. So, you get to a point where you’re just like, ‘Oh gosh, shouldn’t it be tasting good by now?’”
“From my point of view, on the business side, there are so many questions when we do this,” she says. “It is a work in process. Most years, it does not taste super-great until we just about release it—and then, all of a sudden, it just magically shifts, and it’s beautiful and wonderful. But leading up to that, it’s really stressful.
“It’s gone very well every year so far,” she says. “But that’s never a guarantee.”
Founded in 2013, Ozark Beer was the first brewery in a county that had been dry for 68 years. Its bread-and-butter is in brewing excellent, highly drinkable classic styles for Rogers, Arkansas, a blue-collar sprawl south of Wal-Mart HQ in Bentonville, and not far north of the college town of Fayetteville.
Ozark deserves more attention for those beers, such as its bright-and-bitter American Pale Ale (4.3 percent ABV) and convincingly helles-like Ozark Lager (5 percent ABV). However, it’s the bigger flavors that fetch high scores and drive chatter—and so, the beer that’s carried Ozark’s reputation beyond northwest Arkansas is its once-a-year-ish celebration beer, BDCS: a rich, fudgy, much-easier-to-drink-than-it-ought-to-be barrel-aged stout.
It’s a beer that people trade in clubby online circles or that people drive from neighboring states to buy when it’s available. It’s also a beer that our blind review panel loved in 2019, scoring it 99/100. The judges described it as “lush, bitter, rich, velvety, and fantastically complex.” (Read the complete review at beerandbrewing.com.)
On a recent visit to northwest Arkansas, I stopped by Ozark Beer to talk to cofounders Bray and Andy Coates; the latter heads up brewing operations. Bray and Coates met as rafting guides in Colorado, and they married in 2008. Coates got his start in the industry on the packaging line at Great Divide in Denver. Later, after studying with the American Brewers Guild, he apprenticed at Goose Island in Chicago before landing a brewing job there. His experience in Chicago was highly influential in the creation of Ozark BDCS.
Coates says BDCS gets more ingredients than any of their other beers. It includes layers of Munich 20 and dark caramel malt as well as a few roast malts, plus lactose and oats.
“I think what sets this beer apart is that if there is such a thing as a drinkable barrel-aged stout, this one’s there,” he says. “It has the body. It’s boozy enough but isn’t a 12-to-13 percenter. And it’s one that I think is more accessible just because of that residual sugar. It makes it a little more approachable than some giant stouts that just crush you. If you like bourbon and you like chocolate cake or brownies, you’ll probably not hate this.”
Another thing Coates picked up from Goose Island is the long boil: “When we made Bourbon County Stout, we’d basically boil until we hit a certain degree Plato. And we do the same [here]: Just boil until you hit your mark and throw in way too many hops. We use Nugget, and its IBUs are around 70 or 75. … It’s what we had on hand that first year. We over-contracted Nugget, and we had a bunch of it. We’ve just used it ever since.
“We just use our house ale strain, which right now is the Edinburgh strain [i.e., White Labs WLP028]. We’ve had that for a while now. I think we’ll keep it. We’ve bounced around. We did Chico for a long time. We made some beers—we’d split it, and we started pitching different yeasts, and then just trying them blind and giving them to different folks who work here. There was something about the British ale strains, and the Edinburgh strain specifically, where it ferments really clean. If you want big esters, you can get them, but it was just really pleasant, straight off the tank. … It was like, ‘This one always smells better.’”
“Our mash tun is really tiny for a 15-barrel system. It was meant to be a copper showpiece in a brewpub. It maxes out at about 850 pounds—which, brewers on a 15 will know, that’s not very much. [On the homebrew scale, that’s about 9 pounds of malt per five-gallon batch, or 4.2 kilos per 20 liters.] It lends to my drinking style, personally—we make a lot of low-ABV beers, and that’s my preference in general. But making big beers, basically, we mash it in, runoff six or seven barrels, dump the whole thing out, mash in again to even get close to 15, and then just boil the hell out of it.”
The Barrel Game
The barrels Ozark uses have evolved, depending on availability. The main thing, says Coates: They need to be fresh.
“Traditionally, we used almost all Heaven Hill barrels out of Kentucky—until this last year. The 2021 version that we brewed during the pandemic, we just couldn’t get barrels. So we called Rocky Mountain Barrel Company and said, ‘I’m not really picky about the brand so much as what’s fresh.’ So they had some Dickel barrels [from Tennessee] and some Stranahan’s barrels [from Colorado]. That’s what we used this year—so no Kentucky bourbon for the first time, which is pretty wild.
“I think the exciting part is, you just never know how it’s going to be. And we haven’t changed that recipe at all, either. It’s one of those [that] you trust it’s going to work, as long as your barrels are fresh. That’s the biggest thing, too: We don’t have our barrels shipped until that beer’s half-done fermenting. So they get here and they’re filled within a few days. We don’t want them sitting in our hot warehouse.”
‘You Just Have to Trust It’
“This beer does not taste good when it goes into the barrel,” Coates says. “We brew for the barrel, so that’s real. It’s high-IBU. As it ages, it mellows. It’s going to end up balanced, and you just have to trust it.”
They don’t put a timetable on BDCS; the beer tells them when it’s ready to release.
“One thing I’m personally really proud of is that we’ve never hurried the beer,” Coates says. “It comes out at different times. We’ve put it out in May, we’ve put it out in August, we’ve put it out in February. … From a marketing perspective, that’s terrible. But the beer’s ready when it’s ready.
“If we make it in the summer, we don’t even put any nails in until after the first of the year. It’s six months before we even think about tasting it. And we’ll sample random barrels at that point and say, ‘Okay, these are going the right direction.’
“When I talk to [brewers] about barrel-aged beers, people want the beer to taste great [before aging]. It may be more like, ‘Split a batch off, and we’ll put some in a barrel and some here.’ You can definitely do that. But for this beer specifically, it needs to hold up and stand up to the barrel. And how do we do that? It was, very honestly, learning at Goose Island.”