Barrel-aged brews create a buzz in craft beer, but creating them requires both time and space. Fairly small batch sizes are a byproduct of this, but limited availability helps drive demand. Add to this the fact that well-made barrel-aged beers offer extremely complex flavor profiles, and it’s easy to see why drinkers clamor for the beers and why breweries like to make them.
Until a couple of years ago, barrel aging wasn’t really that common among Milwaukee breweries. Lakefront Brewery made a splash in 2014 with the coveted Black Friday Imperial Stout, aged in bourbon barrels, and Sprecher got into the barrel game way back in 2007 with Czar Brew Russian Imperial Stout.
Newer Milwaukee breweries have added a barrel-aged option or two to their portfolios — Good City Brewing, for example, has a few and has created a popular event surrounding the annual release of its excellent bourbon barrel-aged Density Imperial Stout. But there’s arguably no brewery in Milwaukee with a barrel-aging program quite as prolific as the one at Third Space Brewing (1505 W. St. Paul Ave.).
Third Space released its first barrel-aged brew, Haunted Barrel Candy Bar Porter, in October 2017 and they’ve had a steady stream since. The latest happens on Saturday with the second iteration of Nexus of the Universe Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout.
“It was something we planned on since day one,” said brewer and co-founder Kevin Wright. “We put our first beer into barrels less than six months after we opened.”
Added his founding partner Andy Gehl: “One of the things we set out to do from the start was make beers that weren’t traditionally made in Milwaukee. There weren’t a ton of people making awesome hoppy beers or barrel-aged beers. That’s obviously changed a bit since we started working on our business plan.”
Haunted Barrel was the start, followed by Liquid Layers Barrel-Aged Barleywine in November 2017. Nexus of the Universe debuted a month later. Mystic Knot, a barrel-aged Irish coffee stout, launched in March and drew the biggest crowd the brewery has had for a release. In June, Third Space unveiled Red, White & Blue barrel-aged fruited kettle sours. Haunted Barrel returned in October to keep the cycle going. Several variants of the base beers help bolster interest and allow the brewery to get creative.
“The kettle sour was very much a ‘let’s see what happens’,” said Wright. “I’d never done anything close to that before. The idea worked in my head, so that was an experiment. The others, I have experience with those types of beers—porters, stouts, barleywines.”
One week after the Nexus of the Universe release, Third Space is bottling an Ice Bear Baltic Porter aged in a Discount Liquor private select Maker’s Mark barrel. The extremely limited porter will be available at both Discount Liquor locations on Friday, December 14 at 3 p.m.
“For the foreseeable future, we plan to roll with the four main barrel-aged beers we have been doing [Haunted Barrel, Nexus of the Universe, Mystic Knot and Liquid Layers],” said Gehl. “We also plan to experiment with new barrel-aged beers over the next few years which will start with our pilot system and smaller releases.”
Added Wright: “It’s exciting because there is that level of unpredictability. And there are so many variables we can play with. [The barrel-aged beer] recipes are some of the only recipes that we continuously tweak all year. They’re not drastically different, but we’re taking what we had and making changes. With Happy Place, we want it to taste like Happy Place every time. With these we’re allowed to play a little with the recipes, because it’s a vintage beer. People expect there to be slightly different flavors when it comes out each year.”
What Third Space is doing is certainly working. Barrel-aged releases draw long lines before the doors open, and for the latest Haunted Barrel launch patrons began showing up at 5:30 a.m. The brewery hands out numbered bracelets to those in line to deter line jumping and to help set bottle limits just before the doors open. It’s a process that helps to eliminate chaos.
“We’ve kept things orderly and had enough people selling,” said Gehl. “If people wait three hours for their beer, we don’t want them to wait another three hours to get through the line.”
Added Wright: “It’s beyond what we thought it would be. We thought we’d release it, get a good crowd and sell it over the next couple of weeks out of the tap room. I don’t think we predicted that any of it would sell out in a couple of hours.”
Third Space Brewery (1505 W. St. Paul Ave.)
Saturday, Dec. 8, 11 a.m.
Each beer available on tap and in limited bottles.
The guys at Third Space were kind enough to provide a tasting preview of the Nexus brews early in the week. Here are my thoughts:
Nexus of the Universe Russian Imperial Stout. Aged in brandy and bourbon barrels, the stout has a nice dark chocolate flavor that finishes with a hint of vanilla. It’s slightly boozy, but not too hot to drink.
Nexpresso Coffee Stout. Also aged in bourbon and brandy barrels with a whole lot of Stone Creek Coffee added. Nexpresso’s aroma is that of cold brew coffee and the flavor follows suit. Coffee stout fans will fall in love with this beer.
Nexus of the Baklava. A creative take on the stout aged in bourbon barrels with pistachio, cinnamon and honey. The aroma is cinnamon candy and the flavor is cinnamon with a fair amount of honey. This is a stout for the sweet tooth.