Friday, 8 December 2017

Touched by wood

Innis & Gunn occupy a rather odd position in the British beer firmament. They are an independent company, founded in 2003, who make a distinctive product that is different from pretty much anything else on the market. Yet, despite describing themselves on their website as “Scottish craft brewers”, they don’t seem to gain acceptance as “proper craft”. Maybe it’s a case of “not invented here syndrome”.

Their USP is ageing their beers in whisk(e)y barrels. You might imagine that this would imbue them with a peaty smokiness, but in fact what they gain from the oak is more of a soft, vanilla and toffee character. They have recently gone through a rebranding exercise and kindly sent me a couple of bottles to sample. I have actually had these for a few weeks but have only just got round to tasting them. I have drunk both of these beers in the past so they’re not entirely new to me.

First up was their signature beer, Innis & Gunn Original (6.6% ABV), which states on the bottle “Our unique bourbon barrel ageing process unlocks flavours like vanilla and toffee, which combine with the malty character of our Scotch Ale to create an incredible taste experience.”

This poured a mid-brown, copper colour, with a decent head but little aroma. The flavour is malty, but fairly dry, with a hint of vanilla but little hop character. It’s quite drinkable for its strength. A woody and faintly musty note comes through in the aftertaste.

This was followed by Blood Red Sky (Rum Finish) (6.8% ABV), which says “Jamaican rum barrels meet Scottish red beer in an explosion of cool spicy rum notes, vanilla and rich fruit.”

This was much darker, mahogany in colour without any noticeable hint of red. It had slightly less head, and again little aroma. It tastes stronger than the 0.2% differential would suggest. There’s a burnt roasty coffee flavour, rather like a stout, with less of a hint of spirit than I remember from previous examples.

My conclusion is that the Original is an interesting, complex beer that may not be to everyone’s taste, but provides a contrast with many of the aggressive flavours found under the craft banner. The Blood Red Sky, on the other hand, was disappointing, lacking the spirit notes of the previous version and not really offering anything particularly distinctive.

However, Innis & Gunn cannot be discussed without mentioning the controversy around their switch from actual barrel ageing, to breaking down used barrels to place in the fermenting vessels to give the beer a touch of wood character, which is discussed here by the Morning Advertiser. To my mind, using the term “barrel-aged” implies that the beer is allowed to mature while stored within actual physical barrels. What they are doing now could be described as “wood ageing”, but to call it “barrel ageing” is distinctly disingenuous.

12 comments:

  1. I guess my underlying question is why they made the change. By breaking up the barrel are they able to spread it, say, between 3 batches rather than the one. Therefore making purchase of barrels as an expenditure cheaper

    But all credit to them that they have been clear but I do think using time barrel aged is incorrect. More like oak soaked or filtered

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  2. I assume that it's just to make the same amount of wood go further. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with what they're doing, just that they're being misleading about it.

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  3. Good to see you can't be bought !

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    1. Probably why I get so few freebies - although there is another one coming soon :-)

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  4. The Australian wine market has long used bags of smashed oak barrels to 'age' cheaper wine but the difference is they can't call it barrel aged, but you'll often see 'oaked' on a label. Innis and Gunn presumably only care what impression the label gives to buyers and can put up with a few enthusiasts complaining.

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  5. theyd only get the smoky peatiness flavour if theyd used barrels after the Scottish distilleries had finished with them, and since they keep them for 10 years at a time,they probably cost alot more to get and put through this barrel masher upper process, than the 4year old bourbon barrels, that Jack Daniels, who take new oak barrels and set them on fire to get the taste going, seems to supply to the entire drinks industry, hence the oak,slightly smoky and vanilla taste as thats basically the core of JD.

    but there you go, I never felt Innis & Gunn beers ever tasted that particularly barrel aged anyway, not compared to how you can get the flavour in some beers,albeit then obviously produced in smaller batches that you dont find on the shelves of Tesco, so Im happy to just leave Innis & Gunn on the shelf and try something else instead.

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  6. You are correct Mudge, to describe Innis & Gun’s practice of chucking lumps of old barrel into the fermenters and then call the beer “barrel aged”. I would also question the hygiene and cleanliness of this process.

    It is one thing to age beer in old barrels, where the maturing beer will only come into contact with the wood on the inside of the barrel. Cutting the barrel up, to make it “go further”, means that the outside of the former cask will also be in contact with the maturing beer.

    As anyone who has been in a pub cellar, observed casks at beer festivals, or watched beer being delivered will know, barrels get very dirty on the outside; even wine and spirit barrels. I would therefore question the standards of hygiene behind this practice, and am surprised they don’t end up with infected batches of beer.

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    1. As the technique is widely used I'm sure any potential hygiene issues have been addressed.

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  7. The other Mudgie !10 December 2017 at 12:29

    So what they are doing here is no different really from what happens with American Budweiser ;
    https://beerandbrewing.com/dictionary/2mEFk1wLW0/beechwood-chips/

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  8. The other Mudgie !10 December 2017 at 12:33

    And beer from the wood for me means Sam Smith's OBB in one of Humphrey's Proper Pubs.

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  9. Don't Wadworth still use a few wood casks in pubs closer to the brewery?

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  10. I think part of a degree of sniffiness was due to the fact that they did nor have their own brewery, and not only that, their cuckoo's nest was at Wellpark (Tennent Caledonian). Of course they now own a brewery, having bought Inveralmond, but as (from their own info) expansion works are still ongoing they may only have got as far as brewing more Inveralmond there. They also charged a bit more before so many others did, although there's no differential any more (especially as so many other breweries have cottoned on to the wizard wheeze of charging the same as before for a bottle under 2/3rds of the size). Interestingly I&G have for a while been available in Aldi and now have expanded the range there (and overall) and moved in strength into Lidl (the Inveralmond beers as well). The developments in Perth will include a barrel aging hall. I've never been particularly keen on I&G beers - the one I like best is the lager, made with oatmeal and as far as I know untroubled by any old bits of wood.

    Relatedly, I picked up a Caledonia Hop Scotch whisky oak beer last week. It took a third look to realise it was not from CALEDONIAN of Edinburgh, but had also sprung from Wellpark. "Aged with whisky oak", rather than in whisky oak. Unusually, it also had the calories on it (208 kCal per 500ml bottle).

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