It’s en vogue these days for vintners to say they’re dialing back the influence of oak on their wines. But in the beer world, oak is no joke, as craft brewers — relying on both prominence of the toasted wood flavors and provenance of the barrels themselves — are locked in a cutthroat battle over whose ale best achieves oak-aged awesomeness.
In perhaps the grandest experiment along these lines, Firestone Walker Brewing Company — which started making its flagship Double Barrel Ale in Buellton in 1996 before moving most operations to Paso Robles a decade ago — produces a strong ale each fall that blends a bevy of separate, oak-aged brews into a harmoniously hearty beer, at the direction of brewmaster Matt Brynildson and more than a dozen consulting winemakers. This year’s creation is Firestone XVI, featuring eight different company-made beers, from the Velvet Merkin oatmeal stout and Stickee Monkee English barley wine to the Helldorado blond barley wine and Wookey Jack black rye IPA, aged in barrels from varying origins, previously hosting bourbons, brandies, double-barrel ales, even tequila.
The result, best enjoyed in a brandy snifter, is like French kissing an oak barrel, and that’s the highest compliment imaginable. Amid the expected smokiness and caramel flavors live dark chocolate, maple syrup, and curious foreign spices, altogether a whirlwind of smooth, creamy ale that proves both physically pleasing and intellectually intriguing. 13 percent alcohol; $23.99; firestonebeer.com.
More Oak Beers to Try
Great Divide Chocolate Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout: The warmth and sweetness of chocolate makes a nice partner to the oak in this phenomenal stout from this Denver brewery that makes more than 20 different mind-expanding beers per year. 9.5 percent; $10; greatdivide.com
Bourbon Barrel Aged Big Island Imperial Pale Ale: Pleasantly boozy with a creamy mouthfeel and plenty of vanilla flavors, this small batch from Island Brewing Company in Carpinteria packs quite a punch, letting the bourbon remnants do their trick. 10 percent; $20; islandbrewingcompany.com
Night Sail Black Ale: Another from Island, this beer won a Great American Beer Festival medal last month for its pronounced caramel and roasted malt heartiness but delivers an unexpectedly balanced finish, the real trick of all great black ales. 7.2 percent; $15; 7.2 percent; $15; islandbrewingcompany.com