The solera process has been around significantly longer than Third Space Brewing has, having originated in the late 1700s as a way to make sherry.
It involves putting a large batch of (in this case) beer into several barrels. After aging for a period of time, a portion of those barrels are emptied into another set of barrels, and some of the beer is left behind. The original barrels are then topped off with fresh beer. Several “layers” of barrels can be used. The beauty of solera brewing is that a portion of the original beer remains indefinitely and the new beer addition takes on some of that character. Over several years, the solera process can create some amazing complexity, and Third Space plans on having an Anniversary Solera each year for the foreseeable future.
“I went to a sherry tasting and some of the soleras were started in the late 1700s,”said Kevin Wright, co-founder and brewmaster at Third Space. “There’s a portion of the blend that was more than 200 years old, which was cool. We wanted to do something unique for the anniversary. It was a lot of work and a big risk, but at the time it seemed like something that could be fun and different over the years.”
Wright explained that the base beer for FIVE is similar to an old ale or English barleywine because he wanted a darker beer with hints of caramel and raisins that barrel-aging can build on. The beer, made with raisin juice and honey, was first brewed in November 2019 and spent nearly a year in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels before 75% of it was moved into brandy barrels. The original Heaven Hill barrels were topped with a new batch in November 2020, which started the process of creating SIX, an anniversary beer for 2022. The final step for FIVE was a few months in PX Sherry casks, and a batch to renew the three-part cycle again was brewed a couple weeks ago.
“We’ve brewed the fourth batch and we have three more years already in barrels,” added Wright. “We’re really excited. This is a long-term anticipation process.”
Added co-founder Andy Gehl: “This year’s beer will be interesting because it has been aged in three different spirit barrels for nearly three years. (The Solera anniversary series) will only get more unique over time.”
How’d it turn out? A bottle sampled by executive editor Chris Drosner last night showcased FIVE’s heart of sherry. It’s deeply complex, with each barrel contributing plenty of character (and alcohol; the finished beer is around 16% ABV). The strongest note is from the finishing casks of sherry – raisiny and vinous, sweet but still in balance. You can detect the bourbon barrel (from two years ago!) in there, too, with a vanilla and spirit character layered on the beer’s caramel-chocolate base.
Wright expects each release to be different – and possibly dramatically so – as the barrels are replaced in each year of the three-stage solera cycle. The sherry barrels were the freshest this year, in their first use, and the bourbon barrels now holding beer to be released in 2024 are fresh ones, recently replaced to renew the spirit character. Will the sherry wane, letting the brandy or bourbon come further forward next year, or the year after? Your guess is as good as Wright’s. “We’ll go on this flavor adventure together,” he says. “I have no idea.” That dynamic aspect of FIVE and its successors makes so-called “vertical” tastings – side-by-side sampling of consecutive years of a beer release – very intriguing, so Gehl expects buyers to sock away some extra of the $25 bottles for that experience.
FIVE marks a big anniversary for Third Space. The brewery was on the leading edge of a brewery boom in Milwaukee.
“It’s fun to look back at those months before opening,” said Gehl. “The nerves we had. We put everything into this and it had to work. Look how far we’ve come from that moment. This year especially. We’re going on a year and half that has really tested our business.”
Added Wright: “It’s kind of weird to think back where we were five years ago. We continue to grow and evolve and get better at everything we do. That’s something that’s ongoing.”
Bottles of FIVE can be preordered for pickup at Third Space’s anniversary party. The festivities run from 2 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25.