Last Friday, teams of beer writers and brewers presented their DIY beers before the judges at the Barrel-Aging Bragging Rights Competition. The Grid’s Crystal Luxmore took part—and learned what it takes to be crowned victor.
For the past few months, beer writers across the city have been a little self-absorbed, spending far too much time smack-talking and dreaming of victory at the second annual Barrel-Aging Bragging Rights Competition held last Friday. Dreamed up by Adam Grant of host venue The Monk’s Table and beer blogger Mike Warner, the contest pits pairs of brewers and beer writers together, challenges them to brew a special beer to be aged in a barrel, and then brings in beer judges to determine the victor. The prize? A mini-wooden barrel and—the real gem—a year of bragging rights.
I asked the Granite’s brewmaster, Mary Beth Keefe, to be my partner in the contest. And given that it was our first year entering, here are a few things we learned:
1. Research is fun
To come up with our beer concept, we met at The Only and drank pints for inspiration. After a couple, we decided on a Scotch Ale. Its high alcohol content and malty body would benefit from the oaky, vanilla flavours of the barrel; we could brew a big batch and save the rest for a Robbie Burns night dinner at the Granite (if the beer was any good, that is).
Having never brewed that beer style before, we needed to do more research—Mary Beth ordered a book on the subject, and I picked up an armful of Scotch Ales when I was in Montreal. Then we read and drank. And read, and drank. And the drinking part is important: After sampling, we agreed to tweak the recipe Mary Beth had devised to make it higher in alcohol, as most Scotch Ales come in around 7 to 10 percent ABV.
2. Homebrewers are your best friends
We canvassed a few of our best homebrewer buddies for hot tips on Scotch Ales. The big revelation? Kettle caramelization. It’s a technique that involves taking a bit of the wort (concentrated barley water) and boiling it up on the stove for a half hour or more to caramelize the sugars. That would give our Scotch Ale the rich flavour of a Mackintosh’s Toffee Bar. Yes.
3. Don’t fill a chestnut barrel with boiling water
Sadly, this lesson was learned a little late by Iain McOustra of Amsterdam Brewery, who sanitized his virgin chestnut barrel with boiling water; when he poured the water out, little waxy bits came with it. As it turns out, unlike most of the barrels McOustra expertly employs in Amsterdam’s Adventure Brew Series, these ones are often lined with paraffin wax to make them water-tight.
Magnanimously, McOustra phoned all of the other brewers to warn them—and a back-up barrel was found for his and partner Mike Warner’s Call Me Flem-Ishmael, a Flander’s Red style of beer.
4. ”Judging” is a loose word
Three judges were invited to taste all seven beers and declare a winner: Expert beer writer and judge Stephen Beaumont, who declared he didn’t need a score sheet as he could easily remember the seven beers in his head; Niagara College brewmaster Jon Downing; and last year’s winner, Chris Grimley of BeerWithMeTO, who prepared for his judging duties by donning a bright red T-shirt with his own face on it and “BEER” printed across the bottom.
Asked whether they should have an official scoring sheet of some sort, one judge declared, “This is just a Monk’s Table contest—not a world beer competition.”
5. Barrel first, beer second
When it came to picking a winner, the judges decided the beers that really benefited from barrel-aging should take the crown. Our Scotch Ale got props for “doing the best job in the barrel” but, ultimately, it came second place due to an inventive twist by the winning team: Toronto Star beer writer Josh Rubin and Black Oak brewer Jon Hodd decided to season their barrel with South African brandy before filling it with beer.
“Dopplebocks are an unconventional addition to a barrel,” declared Beaumont of their winning brew, the Wooden Chicken. “It’s unusual to see lagers coming out in barrels, but we thought the dopplebock really had a nice character to it. We loved the aromatics.”
The lesson? The bold, bombastic, and boozy will always be rewarded.