The Doomed Doppelbock Behind the Lakefront Brewery/Great Lakes Distillery Collaboration

When a beer goes bad, this distillery gets a call to make lemonade out of a brewery’s lemon.

It emerged from its bourbon barrel slumber with a hidden microbial flaw that usually is a death sentence for a beer. Instead, this Lakefront Brewery doppelbock is going back into wood as liquor, a catalyst for action on an idea kicking around at Great Lakes Distillery for years: a series of brewery-distillery collaborations.

This beer-cum-spirit’s saga begins last summer when Lakefront pumped about 4,650 gallons of doppelbock – among the biggest and richest of traditional German beers – into bourbon barrels. The beer aged for six months and was planned for an early February release.

But tests found a problem that can afflict barrel-aged beer: spoiling bacteria. The amounts were small, likely caused by a single infected barrel, Lakefront president Russ Klisch says, but nonetheless fatal to this beer. The bug isn’t a health risk but would continue to grow, imparting ever more buttery, sour or medicinal flavors in a beer that otherwise had raisiny, caramel malt character kissed with bourbon’s vanilla-oak goodness. “It’s a time bomb,” Klisch says.

Lakefront’s call to pull the plug was followed by another, to Guy Rehorst’s team at Great Lakes. The two Milwaukee businesses have collaborated for 10 years on Great Lakes’ Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit, distilled from a version of Lakefront’s Pumpkin Lager.

“We’re not afraid to ever throw anything in our still,” Rehorst says of Lakefront’s offer to distill the doppelbock. “I think we answered the question ‘Yeah, sure,’ before we even asked why.”

While a portion of the beer that had already been bottled became trash, the rest was trucked to Great Lakes’ Walker’s Point distillery. There, two runs through the still separated the beer’s alcohol and some flavor essence from just about everything else, including those pesky bacteria.

In April the doppelbock spirit went into used bourbon barrels again, where it’ll mellow for up to a year or more. Rehorst expects the final product, which might be released next winter in conjunction with Lakefront’s Barrel Aged Doppelbock 2.0, to drink much like a fruity, funky version of a malt whiskey, probably around 90 proof. “It does maintain a lot of the [beer] character,” he says.

The episode kick-started a long-simmering idea: a series of spirits distilled from popular beers made by local breweries. Rehorst is excited about the prospect of playing with the wide range of beer styles, some with fruit, spices or other exotics. Rehorst says possible brewer partners are enthusiastic.

Klisch sees the spirit and the series as a silver lining for his brewery’s bad break: “We were able to be at least inventive with it, and it’ll still end up being a good product.”

‘One Barrel to Another’ appears in the May 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)