A couple of Saturdays ago I braved what passes for a storm this winter and headed over to the Maple Shade outpost of the Iron Hill empire for their annual Barrels event. This year, brewemaster Chris LaPierre's theme was 'Bourbon and Bugs,' or beers aged in used bourbon barrels and beers brewed with wild yeasts.
For most, both sets of beers are a bit of a stretch. But you're a true beer aficionado if you enjoy the 'bugs' or beers brewed with the wild yeasts. Generally tangy and often sour, these beers have an astringent mounthfeel and take some serious getting used to. With many qualities of good wines, these complex brews offer some amazing flavor profiles for those willing to stretch beyond the standard offerings of the local microbrew.
LaPierre had 5 wilds to choose from and I went with the tasting round of four ounce pours for $10. The most interesting to me was the Heywood, a Belgian golden ale that was fermented in an oak barrel with a lambic yeast. It was dry and sour and had a surprising blue cheese-like finish. Fascinating!
While I thought all five of the wilds were excellent, the other real winner of the round was the Wine Barrel Wee Heavy, a souped-up version of Iron Hill's standard Scotch Ale. Aged in a wet Pinot Noir barrel, with the same lambic yeast, this 11% ABV monster was all fruit up front and spice on the finish. If I had not been driving, I would have had a pint of this!
The Bourbons came next and were actually a bit disappointing. While each had some good points, the bourbon characteristics of the barrel aging were pretty overwhelming. I love LaPierre, and I had eagerly awaited this portion of the tasting, but these beers were generally a disappointment.
I've been a fan of bourbon-aged versions of the Iron Hill Porter for years, since convincing the guys in Media it was OK to sell me growlers of it to take home back in the mid-90s. The Maple Shade Bourbon Porter was served on a nitrogen push and was the clear winner of the round, smooth and full with heavy vanilla notes from the whole beans in the aging barrel. I would have had a pint of this one as well.
The other winner of the round was the Bourbon Bock, which tasted of marshmallow and biscuit and was reminiscent of a summertime s'more. Sadly, the collaborative Bourbon Cherry Iron Fish I was really looking forward to was a real mess, tasting strongly of cherry cough syrup that overwhelmed the hops and the malt.
All in all this was a great afternoon of beer and conversation. I had at least 10 different great conversations about the South Jersey beer scene with the folks I chatted with between sips. There were plenty of knowledgeable home brewers in attendance as well, and and learned a ton from them. I got to talk at length to the Iron Hill brewmaster Chris LaPierre as well as the owner, Kevin Finn. I appreciated their insights into owning a main-stream craft brewpub and what it takes to compete in this market.
This was a once a year event at Iron Hill Maple Shade, but if you're looking for solid food and a great beer selection, they're open 7 days!